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with a foreword by Brian Eno 


from mahler to moby - the evolution 
of sound in the electronic age 






THE AMBIENT CENTURY 



BY THE SAME AUTHOR 


Irish Rock: Roots, Personalities, Directions (O’Brien Press 1987) 

The Isle of Noises (St Martin’s Press 1990) 

The Jimi Hendrix Companion (as contributor) (Schirmer Books 1996) 
Rough Guide to Classical Music (as contributor) (Rough Guides 1994/98) 
Tangerine Dream - Tangents 1973-1983 (Virgin 1994) 



THE AMBIENT CENTURY 

FROM MAHLER TO MOBY - 
THE EVOLUTION OF SOUND 
IN THE ELECTRONIC AGE 


New Edition 

Mark Prendergast 


BLOOMSBURY 



For my father William D. Prendergast 


PICTURE CREDITS: Courtesy of Angel Records: page 7 bottom; Courtesy of Piers Allardyce: 
page 6 bottom; Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd: page 7 top left; Camera Press: page 1 bottom; 
Courtesy of Chrysalis: page 2 bottom; Courtesy of Columbia Records: page 3 bottom right; 
Courtesy of ECM Records: page 4 bottom right; Courtesy of EMI Records: page 16 top left; 
Courtesy of Yuka Fujii: page 12 bottom; Courtesy of Colm Henry: page 13 top; Hulton Deutsh: 
page 1 top left , top right , 2 top left; Courtesy of Maria Vedder/ Atelier Markgraph: page 5 top left; 
Courtesy of Nonesuch: page 4 top left, page 5 bottom right; Courtesy of Opal Ltd: page 4 top right; 
Courtesy of Reiner Pfisterer: page 15 top right; Courtesy of Poly dor: page 14 bottom; Redfems: 
page 3 top left, top right, 8 top, bottom right, 11 top, 16 bottom left; Retna: page 2 top right, 1 top right, 9 
top, bottom left, bottom right, 10 top left, 13 bottom right, 15 top left; Rex: page 8 bottom left, 16 top right; 
Courtesy of Mark Rusher: page 12 top right; Courtesy of Sony: page 11 bottom left; Courtesy of 
Virgin: page 4 bottom left, 5 top right, bottom left, 10 bottom, 12 top left, 15 bottom; Courtesy of 
WEA/Wamer Music UK Ltd: page 13 bottom left; Courtesy of Paul White & Sound on Sound: 
page 3 bottom left; Courtesy of V2 and Mute, © Mei Tao: page 16 bottom right. 

Every reasonable effort has been made to ascertain and acknowledge the ownership of 
copyrighted photographs, illustrations and quoted material included in this volume. Any 
errors that have inadvertently occurred will be corrected in subsequent editions provided 
notification is sent to the publisher. 


First published in Great Britain 2000 

This edition published 2003 

Copyright © 2000, 2003 by Mark Prendergast 
Foreword Copyright © 2000 by Brian Eno 

The moral right of the authors has been asserted 

Bloomsbury Publishing Pic, 38 Soho Square, London W1D 3HB 

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library 

ISBN 0 7475 5732 2 

10 987654321 

Typeset by Hewer Text Ltd, Edinburgh 
Printed in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives pic 



CONTENTS 


Acknowledgements vii 

Foreword xi 

BOOK ONE: THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 1 

Gustav Mahler — Erik Satie — Claude Debussy — Maurice Ravel — 
Frederick Delius - Charles GrifFes - Charles Ives — Iberian Sounds 

— William Duddell - Thaddeus Cahill - Lee De Forest - Luigi 
Russolo — Leon Theremin — Maurice Martenot — Jorg Mager - 
Friedrich Trautwein and Oskar Sala — Arnold Schoenberg - Alban 
Berg and Anton Webern — Leopold Stokowski — Edgard Varese — 

Percy Grainger — Olivier Messiaen — Paul Bowles — Pierre 
Schaeffer and Pierre Henry - John Cage - Otto Luening and 
Vladimir Ussachevsky — Karlheinz Stockhausen - Miles Davis - 
Daphne Oram - Raymond Scott - Gyorgy Ligeti - Pierre Boulez 

— Iannis Xenakis — Morton Feldman - Morton Subotnick - 
Wendy Carlos — Torn Takemitsu — Kaija Saariaho 
Electronic Media - Records - Magnetic tape — Keyboards, 

Synthesizers and Computers — Compact Disc 

BOOK TWO: MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 91 
La Monte Young — Terry Riley - Steve Reich — Brian Eno - 
Philip Glass — ECM — Windham Hill and New Age Music — 

Harold Budd — Jon Hassell — Michael Nyman — John Adams — 

Arvo Part — Henryk Gorecki — John Tavener — Other Minimalists 

BOOK THREE: AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 179 

Innovators — Leo Fender — Les Paul - Joe Meek - The Beatles - 
Bob Dylan — The Beach Boys — Jimi Hendrix — Ravi Shankar — 

The Velvet Underground, Nico and John Cale — Simon & 

Garfunkel — The Rolling Stones — Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison 

— David Bowie 

Psychedelia — The Byrds — Love and The Doors — The West 
Coast Pop Art Experimental Band — Neil Young, Buffalo 
Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash — Spirit - Tim Buckley - 
The Grateful Dead — Country Joe And The Fish — H. P. Lovecraft 



VI 


CONTENTS 


— Quicksilver Messenger Service - The Steve Miller Band — 

Santana - Folk Ambience 

Rock Evolves — Pink Floyd — Keith Emerson, King Crimson and 
Yes — Led Zeppelin — Mike Oldfield 

The German Scene - Can - Faust - NEU! - Tangerine Dream 

— Popol Vuh — Roedelius, Cluster and Harmonia — Manuel 
Gottsching and Ash Ra Tempel — Kraftwerk — Klaus Schulze — 

Holger Czukay 

Synthesizer Music - Beaver & Krause - Tonto’s Expanding 
Headband - Tim Blake — Jean-Michel Jarre - Vangelis 
The Indie Wave - Cabaret Voltaire - New Order and Joy 
Division - The Durutti Column — Colin Newman - The Cocteau 
Twins — Sonic Youth — Dead Can Dance — Spacemen 3, Sonic 
Boom and Spiritualized 

Individualists — Ennio Morricone - Todd Rundgren — John 
McLaughlin — Robert Fripp — Peter Gabriel — Bill Nelson - Laurie 
Anderson - Ryuichi Sakamoto - Seigen Ono - David Sylvian - 
Michael Brook — U2 - Daniel Lanois - Enya 

BOOK FOUR: HOUSE, TECHNO AND TWENTY-FIRST- 

CENTURY AMBIENCE 367 

Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder — New York Garage and 
Electro — Chicago House and Acid House — Derrick May and 
Detroit Techno — Ann Dudley and The Art Of Noise — 808 State 

— A Guy Called Gerald — Ecstasy and the New Rave Psychedelia — 

The KLF - The Stone Roses and Primal Scream — Orbital - 
Enigma and Spiritual House — The Orb and Ambient House - 
Mixmaster Morris — The Future Sound Of London - Aphex Twin 

— Pete Namlook and Ambient Techno — Bill Laswell and Collision 
Music - William Orbit - Scanner, Biosphere and Isolationism - 
Massive Attack, Tricky and Trip-Hop — Coldcut - DJ Shadow and 
DJ Spooky — Goldie and Ambient Drum and Bass - Courtney 
Pine and Trip Jazz - Talvin Singh and Anokha — Dub Reggae — 

Trance - The Chemical Brothers and Rock Techno — Air - Moby 


Afterword 477 

Twentieth-century Ambience — the Essential 100 Recordings 478 

Bibliography 481 

Index 487 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 


MUSIC INDUSTRY 

Over the years many lovely people have facilitated my requests for interviews, 
information and recordings. Here are some of the best: Lisa Agasee, Gill Alice, 
Mike Alway, Laurence Aston, Lisa Anthony, Nick Austin, Rob Ayling, Emma 
Bagnall, Mike Barnes, Sophie Beck, John Best, Johnny Black, Ian Blackaby, 
Anne Boiler, Mark Borkowski, Sue Brown, Vicky Bruce, Katharine Burton, 
Harriet Capaldi, Mick Carpenter, Dave Cawley, Richard Chadwick, Murray 
Chalmers, Jane Chapman, Barbara Charone, Patrick Crowther, Ted Cum- 
mings, James and Jelena Doheny, Emma Duyts, Deborah Edgley, Rachel 
Edwards, John Ellson, Sara Fecamp, Pete Flatt, Heather Finlay, Andy Garibaldi, 
Jilly Grafton, Louise Greidinger, Tony Goodwin, Alf Goodrich, Mike Gott, 
Tara Guha, Florence Halfon, Peter Hall, the late Philip Hall, Pippa Hall, Dave 
Harper, Mick Houghton, Amy Howard, Katherine Howard, Dorothy Howe, 
Talia Hull, Ann-Louise Hyde, Gabriel Ibos, Robert Barrs-James, Steve Kali- 
doski, Sharon Kelly, Debbi Lander, Pete Lawrence, Sarah Lees, Samantha Link, 
Judy Lipsey, Samantha Lock, Carol Lowry, Gerry Lyseight, Colleen Maloney, 
Eugene Manzi, Gaylene Martin, Sandra McKay, Alison McNicol, Nigel 
Molden, Tom Morden, Klaus Mueller, Pat Naylor, Kris Needs, Lee Ellen 
Newman, Shane O’Neill, Suzanne Parkes, Rob Partridge, Chantal Passamonte, 
Steve Phillips, Kelly Pike, Caroll Pinkham, Karen Pitchford, Jo Pratt, Andy 
Prevezer, Paul Reedy, Iain Robinson, Hildegard Schmidt, Steven Sanderson, 
Chareen Steel, Becky Stevenson, Suzanne Stephens, Anthea and Dominic 
Norman-Taylor, Rachel Thomas, Caroline Turner, Laurence Verfaillie, Deb- 
bie Walker, the late Johnny Waller, Steve Waters, Chris White, Amanda 
Whitwell, Tony Wilson, Carol Yaple, Rob Young. 


EDITORIAL 

Much appreciation to the editors of various magazines, newspapers and books 
who allowed me to explore electronic music through interviews, features and 
other contributions. Ian and Paul Gilby at Sound On Sound deserve special 
mention for giving me my first important break in the UK during the late 1980s. 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 


Also at SOS Paul Ireson for his sterling support during the 1990s. Other 
important publications like Blueprint, New Hi-Fi Sound, Zig Zag, Option (US), 
Hi-Fi Review, Record Collector, Music & Musicians International, Lime Lizard, Select, 
Guitarist, International Musician, Making Music, Attitudes, High Fidelity, New 
Statesman, Keyboard Player, Classic CD, Observer, Future Music, Independent, Rough 
Guides, Keyboard (Japan), Variant, Keyboard (US), Ikon, Mojo and UNCUT 
deserve credit, as do their respective editors: Deyan Sudjic; Neville Farmer; 
Don Perretta; Richie Unterberger; Chris Frankland and Malcolm Steward; 
Peter Doggett and Mark Paytress; Basil Ramsey; Britt Collins; Tony Stewart 
and David Cavanagh; Neville Martin; Paul Trynka; Paul Colbert; Matthew 
Manning; Liz Hughes; Boyd Tonkin; Steve Miller; Roger Mills and Neil Evans; 
Rupert Christiansen; Andy Jones; Nick Coleman; Jonathan Buckley; Brian 
Jacobs; Malcolm Dickson; Bob Doerschuk; Glyn Brown; Barney Hoskyns; Paul 
Lester and Allan Jones. 


SPECIAL CONTRIBUTIONS 

Gerry Kenny (for all those tapes), Lin Barkass (for all her support), Victoria 
Bevan (musical input to Book One), Julia Snyder (Tangerine connection), 
Declan Colgan and Simon Hopkins (tireless new-music champions), Regine 
Moylett (always there), Paul Brown (book finder), Russell Mills, Rodney Breen 
(early support and photography), Gareth Davies (musicology), Nick Luscombe 
(DJ stuff), the late Yagnesh Patel (for his singular contribution to Book Four), 
Nigel Hogan (Mac plus), Os (Altair5), John Lloyd (technical), Gary Jeff (discs), 
Roger and Bee Eno, Jon Tye, Neil Jones, Catherine Dempsey and Brian Eno. 
Thanks also to the following musicians for significant interview experiences: 
Harold Budd, Robert Fripp, the late great Nico, Vini Reilly, David Sylvian, 
John McLaughlin, Daniel Lanois, Holger Czukay, Robert Wyatt, Michael 
Nyman, Klaus Schulze, Bill Nelson, Edgar Froese, Michael Brook, Pete 
Namlook, Sonic Boom and Mixmaster Morris. 


PUBLISHING 

On the way to winning a contract the following people played crucial roles: 
Harry Shapiro, Mic Cheetham, Sarah Lazin, the late Diane Cleaver and of 
course my diligent agent Simon Trewin. Special appreciation goes to Ian Gilby 
and Michael Nyman for their referrals and also to the Hinrichsen Foundation 
for their financial assistance. During the lengthy run-up to publication the 
following deserve just praise: my dear editor Richard Dawes, and, at Blooms- 
bury, my serene desk editor Helena Drakakis, Mike Jones and Elizabeth 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 


IX 


O’Malley for all their patience, but most of all, for his vision and unwavering 
commitment to the book from start to finish, Matthew Hamilton. 


PERSONAL 

Liz Booth (for her sustaining belief), Clive Crump and Sue Bill (for their loyalty 
and love), Holly Robertson, Tim Davies, Mark and Nicky Holmes (and the 
entire Holmes clan), Mattea Di Gaetano, Penny Seddon (for her cabin retreat), 
Sally Reeves, Carla Foster, Valerie Webb, Terry and Diana Duggan, Louise and 
Katharine ffoulkes, Kirk Martin, Sarah and Ian Oliff, David West and Valerie 
Webb. Also: Yuka Fujii, Louise Gray, Josephine Machon, Kathy Etchingham, 
Philip Dodd and Mary Talbot. Especial thanks to my loving father William 
Prendergast, my brother Billy, Marina Capel, Charice Cosmas and my extended 
family, Beth and Jennifer, in America. Above all, much love and gratitude to my 
darling wife Genie Cosmas and our fabulous daughter Natasha. 




FOREWORD 


From a classical perspective the major revolutions in music have been 
described as changes in the ways composers put notes, chords and instruments 
together. Such a composition-centred view of musical history leaves out a lot 
of other types of musical evolution. It doesn’t tell you very much about, for 
example, rock and roll. I recall a conversation I had in the early 70s with a 
classical composer, who said to me, ‘Of course, everything in rock music had 
happened in classical music before 1832.’ ‘But it doesn’t account for Elvis,’ I 
protested. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘that wasn’t a musical revolution, but a social 
one.’ 

One of the many trajectories along which music develops is its social 
dimension. New forms of music can be new in many different ways, and 
one of them is what role they are intended to play in a listener’s life, or, to put it 
another way, what use the listener will put them to. The difference between 
sitting quietly in a chair and only coughing in the spaces between movements, 
and screaming your head off in a stadium full of hysterical young girls is a real 
difference. The difference between apprehending the compositional subtleties 
of a Bach fugue and filling your apartment with Heavy Metal is a real difference. 
These differences have to do with what social activity the music addresses, what 
music is thought to be for. 

Until recently music was inseparable from the space in which it was 
performed - including the social space. One very strong movement in the 
late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries was towards music as an immersive, 
environmental experience. You see this in Mahler, Debussy, Satie, Varese and 
then in Cage, La Monte Young and the Modernists. It’s a drift away from 
narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space. 

But it was recording which really liberated music from the moment of 
performance and from the performers themselves. Records meant that music 
could be carried and collected and listened to over and over. They allowed 
people to take the music home, and to choose when and where and how they 
would use it. 

Recording and electronics also allowed composers to work with impossible 
perspectives and relationships. Producers and musicians discovered that tiny 
sounds could be made huge, and huge ones compacted. And, using echoes and 
reverberations, those sounds could seem to be located in a virtual space which 
was entirely imaginary. The act of making music becomes the art of creating 



XII 


FOREWORD 


new sonic locations and creating new timbres, new instruments: the most basic 
materials of the musical experience. 

Another important thread in the story of Ambient music is film soundtracks — 
music made to support something else, an evocation of a psychological space 
within which something is intended to happen, a sense of music which 
presented a climate but left out the action. I was intrigued by the soundtracks 
that Nino Rota made for the Fellini films - whole albums with two or three 
themes replayed in different moods. It was like constructing geography and not 
populating it. The listener, I felt, became the population of a sonic landscape and 
was free to wander round it. 

Perhaps the strangest surprise was watching these threads weaving together in 
the popular music of the 1980s and 90s. The mantric repetitiveness of 60s 
experimental music married with 80s sequencer programmes ended up en- 
tertaining millions of people in Trance clubs in Ibiza, Goa, Manchester and 
Tokyo. 

This whole complex and interesting story forms the backbone of the 
mammoth undertaking that is The Ambient Century. Here Mark Prendergast 
has assembled a huge narrative, a long and intricate journey through a hundred 
years of music, seen through the lens of the Ambient perspective. 


Brian Eno, 2000 



BOOK ONE 

THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


I T WAS THE summer of 1968. For some a time of student unrest, for others 
a time of discovery. For the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen it 
was a time of intense emotional upheaval. His wife and children had left 
him. Alone in his house in Kurten, near Cologne, he contemplated his fate. 
Ideas of suicide crossed his mind. He went on hunger strike and vowed to wait 
for his family to return. As time passed he began to write down Japanese-style 
verses like: 

Play a sound, 

Play it for so long, 

Until you feel that you should stop 

or 


Play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe, 

Play a vibration in the rhythm of dreaming. 

That such words could lead to what Stockhausen termed ‘intuitive music’ is 
one of the great fascinations of the twentieth century. Here the composer was 
getting right inside what it meant to create sound, no longer only concentrating 
on the external but also the internal processes of becoming aware of what a 
sound was actually like when first encountered. Or, more accurately, when it 
was encountered in a different way. Stockhausen played a piano tone after four 
days of fasting. What he heard changed his life for ever. 

John Cage had already opened up the world to the reality of silence. During 
the late 1940s and early 1950s the guru from the American Midwest had pushed 
music from Eastern-inspired piano pieces of exquisite calm to nothing at all, 
expressed most concisely in 4 ' 33 M . Here, for that duration of time, any 
performer of any instrument was required to not-play. The music was every- 
thing else heard, the Ambient sounds of whatever environment the ‘perfor- 
mance’ was happening in. Cage had professed that his favourite music was when 
everything was still, when nothing was attempted. The very sounds of his 
everyday environment were ‘poetry to his ears’. 

This non-purposeful acceptance of extraneous sound as music was sympto- 
matic of the increasing hubbub of twentieth-century urban life, where silence as 



2 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


an experience was very rare. To flash back to the mid- nineteenth century, music 
was something that was experienced as a singular occurrence — once you’d been 
to the concert hall and heard the orchestra play the symphony, that was it. Music 
was live or not at all. There was always the piano, but you had to be musically 
literate to enjoy it. Or at least know somebody who was. 

Then along came the player piano, which could record a composer’s 
performance. But then Edison realized you could record music magnetically 
and away we went towards the capturing of music on record. By the beginning 
of the twentieth century even Debussy was putting his music on to the new 
medium. Add to that the increasing popularity of records, the universality of 
radio, the rise of the tape recorder, the clatter of mass production, the coming of 
electronic instruments, the increased demand for cars, the universal spread of 
television and so on — and by John Cage’s time modem noise was indeed 
deafening. Music didn’t need to have to jolt people out of their quiet lethargy. It 
no longer, as it did in the Romantic music of the early nineteenth century, had 
to carry the sum of all human emotions. Life was hectic enough without more 
stormy symphonies. Many opted for quiet. 

The twentieth century saw two things occur in music which had never 
happened before. Firstly, music was deconstmcted. Before, Western music was 
quite rigid. The sonata form of the Classical period had specific rules which had 
to be adhered to. Of course there were exceptional talents but they were 
constrained within a chosen form. Then the Romantics started to loosen things. 
Wagner’s grandiose operatic orchestration and Bruckner and Mahler pushed the 
symphony to its limits so that by the end of the nineteenth century it began to 
creak under its own weight. Then along came Satie, Debussy and Ravel with a 
lighter touch. They wrote more accessible melodies in shorter forms which 
openly embraced modernity and the need to look beyond parochialism to the 
riches to be found in other cultures such as the Orient. As a boy in New England 
Charles Ives would hear his bandleader father’s experiments in overlapping the 
sounds of different marching bands playing different tunes. In France, Messiaen 
would show that sound could possess rich colours if exotic scales were used. 
Schoenberg and his pupils of the Second Viennese School tore up the mle book 
on music and rewrote it imposing upon it a destabilizing force known as 
Serialism. 

As old musical ideas begun to be supplanted by new, a second radical change 
occurred — and this was in the very way music was generated. Composers and 
musicians began to be fascinated by the nature of individual tones. Serialism, in 
its dislocative way, had thrown up an interest in the essence of a single sound. 
The leaders of the post-Second World War avant-garde in Europe, such as 
Stockhausen, Schaeffer and Varese, seized on new electronic equipment and 
began to experiment with tape recorders. New qualities in sound were 
perceived, new tonalities divorced from any traditional acoustic instruments 
were realized. De Forest’s invention of the valve in the 1920s had made 
amplification possible. This, coupled with the concept of the sound environ- 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


3 


ment, made for some spectacular results. The work of Varese and Xenakis in the 
pointed Philips pavilion at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels became a twentieth- 
century archetype of progress married to artistic achievement. 

Many, feeling the tug of technological evolution, had campaigned for new 
musical means. Debussy famously wrote of the century of aeroplanes deserving a 
music of its own. Varese saw that electronics could free music from the shackles 
of the past. The conductor Leopold Stokowski saw a future in which music 
would be generated by hitherto unknown means. But it took time for 
technology to catch up with ideas. There were many brave and interesting 
attempts at creating music machines. In the 1920s both the Theremin and 
Ondes Martenot were valid sources of novel electronic sound. But it wasn’t 
until the tape experiments of Schaeffer and others that it was realized that a 
device would have to be built to handle all aspects of organizing and creating 
music. Flence the arrival of the first synthesizer in the US in the early 1950s. But, 
as with the computers of the period, music synthesis was tied to the laboratory or 
similar locations. Then Bob Moog took synthesizers out of the lab and made 
them more compact and portable. Electronic means had become accessible to 
any musician who wanted them. Stockhausen’s prediction in 1955 that new 
electronic instruments would yield ‘what no instmmentalist has ever been 
capable of’ was at last becoming a reality. 

The importance to twentieth- century music of atmospheric sound, its timbre 
and personality - indeed its ‘Ambience’ - is a measure of how much innovative 
musical ideas intertwined with technological change. The series of quiet, 
luscious Hispanic-inflected albums which Miles Davis made in the late 
1950s are a case in point. The spirit of Debussy and Iberian composers such 
as Rodrigo infuses this beautiful work but so too does the already impressive 
state of studio and recording technology of the time. Multi-track recording and 
editing at the production console, enhanced by special microphone placement, 
highlighted qualities in the music that in earlier times would have been buried 
underneath gramophone crackle and tape hiss. It’s tme to say that improvements 
in production and consumption of music allowed quieter, more experimental 
elements to creep in. Could Ligeti’s beautiful Lux Aeterna of 1966 have been 
rendered credibly on old scratchy 78s? 

In the nineteenth century symphonies were often loud and raucous affairs 
that gave the public a visceral jolt through the sheer dynamic of the orchestra. In 
the twentieth century rock seemed to take over this function. This left 
composers free to experiment. Wendy (formerly Walter) Carlos transcribed 
Bach for Moog synthesizer. Iannis Xenakis used mathematics and computers to 
generate music. Tom Takemitsu fused Debussy with his Oriental sensibility in a 
reverse image of what had occurred at the beginning of the century. Moreover 
synthesizers became digital, with the ability to sample other instmments through 
the new microprocessing technology of silicon chips. By the end of the 
twentieth century music was capable of being rendered via small personal 
computers through a veritable treasure-trove of new electronic samplers, effects 



4 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


units and complex software. New music no longer needed to shout loud to 
impress. It could do so quietly through the beautiful textures of new super 
sound technology. 

The dominance of the computer in music at the end of the twentieth century 
was made possible by developments in software and miniaturization. In sound 
labs at prestigious places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 
huge advances were made in areas such as acoustic modelling and spontaneous 
musical response. In the first of these fields researchers are coming close to a 
perfect replication of the human voice, in itself an echo from Kubrick’s prescient 
film 2001: A Space Odyssey , where the fictitious HAL 9000 computer could 
speak. In the latter field computers are being designed to become more 
musically intelligent, so that they can accompany a human ensemble or 
instrumentalist. 

Important as these things are to the century of sound they would be just 
aspects of research and development if it weren’t for the fidelity of Compact 
Disc, or CD. The ability of a reflective disc with a diameter of just four and a half 
inches to communicate music in all its recorded perfection has rendered 
technological advances audible in the home. With better hi-fi systems the 
listener can hear the subtleties of Ambient sound whether it be by Satie, Delius, 
Cage or Eno. Stockhausen has remastered in digital form his entire life’s work 
for presentation on CD. The availability of so much music on the new sound 
medium has radically changed people’s perception of what music is. The 
combination of constant reissuing of back-catalogue and newer musical hybrids 
has blurred old prejudices, making it acceptable to like an eclectic mix of styles. 
At the end of the twentieth century old categories like jazz, pop and classical no 
longer really applied. Everything was thrown into the sonic soup by virtue of 
new digital technology. Over a century music had traversed an electronic 
landscape and now, by virtue of technology, its very texture, its very essence, 
had become digitally encoded. The search for newer and newer sounds had 
opened up music to the endless possibilities of Ambient sound. Now, the 
bleeding heart of electronic progress had, by its very nature, rendered all 
recorded music, by definition, Ambient. 


GUSTAV MAHLER 

Though many point to Wagner’s awe-inspiring Prelude to Act 3 of Tristan und 
Isolde (1859) as being where modem music begins, its chromatic or uncertain 
key style and hazy effect presaging a future era, for me Gustav Mahler is the real 
connection between Romanticism and Modernism. His use of extremely long 
melodic lines, recurring thematic elements and clear orchestral tones shifted the 
history of music towards the repetitive conceptual music of the twentieth 
century. Hence it’s not for nothing that Mahler became big news when the 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


5 


recording industry coalesced in the 1960s. His cycle of symphonies seemed 
tailor-made for continuous listening pleasure. 

Most people’s entry point to Mahler, bom in 1860 in Bohemia, is the 
achingly beautiful Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 of 1902. And this because of 
Visconti’s mesmeric film Death In Venice (1971), which places a fictitious Mahler 
(played to the hilt by Dirk Bogarde) in a plague-doomed Venice in search of 
perfect homo erotic love. In tmth this limpid masterpiece for harp and strings 
was a love poem to the real-life composer’s future wife, Alma. 

Mahler’s life was conventional in that he rose through the academic system 
without fail. He gave his first live performance when only ten and by 1878 had 
graduated from the Prague and Vienna Conservatories and began conducting to 
make money. In 1895 he converted from Judaism to Catholicism to become 
head of the Vienna Opera, then the most prestigious musical appointment in the 
world. Yet his own music was ridiculed for its ardent sprinkling of cow bells and 
herd horns, its open-air sound, its use of folk tunes and nursery rhymes. A 
complete Romantic, Mahler believed he could put everything into his work 
and every summer retired to a country retreat in the Salzburg Alps to do so. 

What is remarkable about Mahler is that through a loosened key structure he 
created a mysterious language that is full of intense yearning. This was first heard 
in 1895’s Symphony No. 3, whose concluding Adagio, subtitled ‘What Love Tells 
Me’, blueprints the Mahler sound. The lilting shifts of the Poco Adagio from 
1900’s ‘Fourth’ expands the idea with a subtly understated rhythmic figure. The 
aforementioned Adagietto from the Fifth is a compound of airy lightness and 
ornate melancholia derived from one of the composer’s song settings, Ich bin der 
Welt abhanden gekommen ( I am lost to the world). The Andante Moderato from 1904’s 
Sixth is sadness suffused in sound and tragically anticipated the loss, in 1907, of 
both his job and his young daughter and his being diagnosed as having heart 
disease. His song-symphony based on Chinese poems, Das Lied von der Erde 
(Song Of The Earth) (1909), was a daring way to come to terms with tragedy but 
the lengthy Adagio to his unfinished Symphony No. 10 (1910) revealed his tme 
despair in a music which gradually dissipates tonality until we hear loud discord. 
Within a year he was dead. 

Mahler is singular among Romantic composers in that a selection of his music 
can be programmed for performance or playing on CD and the result in both 
cases is a truly Ambient experience of landscape and emotion. This is particularly 
fascinating in that his use of incidental sounds would be mirrored by such 
Ambient House stars as The Orb nearly a century after his death. 

LISTENING 

Mahler is one of those composers whose work nearly every prominent 
conductor wants to excel at, and so there are versions and boxed sets galore 
of his music. Sir Georg Solti on Decca, Bernard Haitink on Philips, Rafael 
Kubelik on Deutsche Grammophon and Klaus Tennstedt on EMI are the main 



6 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


heavyweights who have recorded all the symphonies. Yet individual works are 
brought out better by different conductors. My favourites include Bernard 
Haitink’s masterly control of the Fourth’s Poco Adagio in 1967, Sir John 
Barbirolli’s velvet touch with the Fifth’s Adagietto in 1969 and Herbert von 
Karajan’s 1975 controlled Andante from the Sixth plus his take on ‘I Am Lost To 
The World’ with Christa Ludwig, and finally Karl Rickenbacher’s sonorous 
1989 interpretation of the Tenth’s Adagio. 


ERIK SATIE 

The father of modem Ambience and Minimalism, Erik Satie, in the years 1887— 
93 changed the whole course of musical history with three sets of miniatures 
titled Trois Sarabandes, Trois Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes. With their clear 
melodic phrases, exquisite lightness and fresh texture, Satie literally blew away 
the pomp and rhetoric of the old order. Here was a music of repetition with 
strong emphasis on chords which seemed simpler and more fitting to a new age. 
Not only did he influence the likes of Debussy and Ravel but he also impressed 
figures such as Picasso and Cocteau. In fact all the way through the twentieth 
century musicians and composers have acknowledged his vision and rebellious 
modernity. 

Satie’s life reads like a catalogue of controversy and recklessness. The son of a 
shipbroker but reared by a stepmother who was also a composer, Satie was born 
in Honfleur in northern France in 1866. His entry into the Paris Conservatoire 
in 1879 led to expulsion in 1882 for absenteeism and laziness. Recognized as 
gifted, he just wouldn’t conform. Private piano lessons exasperated teachers as 
Satie refused to sight-read. A spell in the army in 1886 led to bronchitis. 

With his father trying his hand at music publishing, Satie began to write in 
earnest. Trois Sarabandes (1887) was a short set of three dance pieces which used 
unresolved chords to create a strange floating harmony. A certain tranquillity 
and slowness of movement, particularly in the first piece, would shape his style 
and have immediate effect on the writing of Debussy and Ravel. The following 
year came the revolutionary Trois Gymnopedies, three slow pieces lasting 
together less than ten minutes which gracefully utilized delicate modal harmony 
and gossamer-like transparency. Satie derived the name from an old Spartan 
ritual of naked youths dancing around a statue of Apollo. A trip to the Paris 
Exposition gave him a flavour for the Orient which infected his crowning 
achievement, the six Gnossiennes of 1890—3. In these pieces, named after the 
Cretan palace of Knossos, Satie incredibly dispatched with bar lines and any kind 
of formal time signature. In their place on the score were strange instructions 
like ‘be clairvoyant’. Still the ability of these beautifully riveting miniatures to 
capture a sense of spiritual calm and induce quietude has made them famous the 
world over. 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


7 


During this time Satie became a true Montmartre bohemian and official 
composer of the Rosicrucians, a mystical sect. His Lefils des etoiles ( The Son Of 
The Stars) , written in 1 891 for their flamboyant leader, Sar Peladan, was an ambient 
‘sound decor’. That year Satie also met Debussy, who would remain a friend for 
twenty-five years. Soon afterwards Satie broke with Peladan and, attired in soft cap, 
corduroy and goatee, this young anarchist in his mid- twenties involved himself 
with duels, hard drinking, love affairs and even formed his own church. In 1893 
came Vexations , an eighteen-note minimalist piece that was scored to be repeated 
840 times. During the 1960s John Cage and John Cale would famously perform 
this in New Y ork. By 1 896 Debussy had orchestrated the clever Trois Gymnopedies. 

Having gone through a substantial legacy with which he bought, among 
other things, twelve identical velvet suits, Satie moved in 1898 to the Parisian 
suburb of Arcueil, where he would spend the rest of his life. He considered 
himself a radical socialist with an interest in the poor. Every day for fifteen years 
he walked to Montmartre to earn his living as a cafe and music-hall pianist. Both 
Je te Veux (. I Want You) and Poudre d’Or ( Golden Powder) from 1900-01 reflect 
gay Parisian life of the period. He wrote the strange Trois morceaux en forme de 
poire ( Three Pieces In The Shape Of A Pear) for four-handed piano and enrolled in 
the Schola Cantorum in 1905 for a diploma course. Though he was outwardly 
the eccentric, Satie’s humour always hid an insecurity about his lack of formal 
education. In 1908 he graduated with a diploma in fugue and counterpoint. By 
1911 both Debussy and Ravel were performing his music to enthusiastic 
audiences. Satie’s music continued to be best in miniature, the serene second 
part of 1914’s Trois Vaises ( Three Waltzes) or the Idyll To Debussy from the 
following year’s Avant-dernieres pensees ( Second To Last Thoughts). 

By now an omnipresent Parisian figure with his bowler hat and umbrella, 
Satie began an association with the poet, playwright and film director Jean 
Cocteau which would make him famous after the war. In 1917 a huge scandal 
erupted over Parade , a ballet on which Satie worked with Cocteau, Pablo 
Picasso and Francis Picabia. Full of Satie’s piano style, the show included the 
sounds of pistol shots, a siren and a typewriter. Critics were outraged; Satie 
insulted them and received a jail sentence and a fine (later quashed). In 1918 
came the strange cantata Socrate (Socrates), which many believe to be the zenith 
of his search for a ‘music of bare bones’. Based on the dialogues of Plato, the 
piece has a religious plainchant flavour with unadorned, almost free-flowing 
piano. A year later came Cinq nocturnes (Five Nocturnes) and in 1920 Satie’s 
famous ‘furniture music’, background Ambience for boring intervals in concert 
music. His last scandal came in 1924 with Relache (Relax) another ballet with 
Picabia, with the highly surrealistic Rene Clair film Interval inserted in the 
middle. 

Years of heavy drinking had led to illness. Friends put Satie up in hotels but in 
1925 his liver gave out and he died. Afterwards associates like Darius Milhaud 
found piles of manuscript in his bare rooms in Arcueil — testament to his 
dedication to a music ‘conceived in a spirit of humiliation and renunciation’. 



8 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


The bizarre titles of Satie’s pieces (no less humorous in English), such as 
Dreamy Fish , Cold Pieces or Four Veritable Flabby Pieces For A Dog, hid a talent 
which Ravel considered to be one of a genius completely ahead of its time. 
Satie’s very nature blueprinted the free-flowing creative spirit of the twentieth 
century, his ability to shock coinciding with the true artist’s ability to produce 
timeless creations. His pellucid music is the essence of Ambience. 

Satie’s interest in symmetrical repetition is the essence of Minimalism. The 
easy swing and luminous texture can be traced right down to 1990s House 
music. Edgard Varese, John Cage and even Brian Eno owe him an enormous 
debt. During the 1980s his music inspired the New Age movement in America, 
one famous pianist, George Winston, recording an album of the Frenchman’s 
music for the Windham Hill label. A veritable Neo classicist, Erik Satie took a 
great risk. History has served him well. 

LISTENING 

Erik Satie — Anne Queffelec (Virgin 1988) 

Erik Satie: Socrate (Wergo 1991) 

Satie: Piano Works — Daniel Varsano and Philippe Entremont (Sony 1992) 
Erik Satie: Early Piano Works - Reinbert De Leeuw (Philips Duo 1998) 

Piano Dreams — The Erik Satie Collection - Pascal Roge (Decca 1997) 

The practical difficulty with Satie’s piano music, particularly Trois Gymnopedies, 
is that it is often played too fast. Reinbert De Leuuw’s performance over three 
discs recorded in the late 1970s has never been equalled: it is, exactly as per the 
composer’s instructions, exquisitely slow. The Philips Duo reissue of this 
recording is simply superb. Wergo’s disc of Socrate pairs Satie with piano music 
from his inheritor John Cage. The Queffelec disc combines the Gnossiennes with 
a range of quirky pieces such as Embry ons desseches (Dried Embryos), Vieux sequins 
et vieilles cuirasses ( Old Sequins And Armour) and Sonatine bureaucratique ( Bureau- 
cratic Sonatina). The Varsano and Entremont performance recorded in a Paris 
church in 1979 is the most economical entry point as it combines the best of the 
early pieces with the cafe music and the later work, including a sample of the 
Nocturnes of 1919. Piano Dreams — The Erik Satie Collection boasts crystalline 
performances, recorded during the 1980s and 1990s, by the renowned French 
interpreter Pascal Roge. 


CLAUDE DEBUSSY 


For many modem music began with Debussy and the ‘voluptuous ambience’ of 
his Prelude a Yapres-midi d’un faune (Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun), 
composed in 1894. Here was an orchestral music that simultaneously rejected 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


9 


the huge symphonic form of German music, the traditional classical exposition 
of Mozart and reliance on strong melodic development. In their place, over a 
compact eleven minutes, was a single series of, according to its author, ‘discreet’ 
sound events for flute, harp and coloured orchestra. Through his fame, his 
writings and his uncompromising nature Debussy (even more than Satie and 
Ravel) was able to raise the flag for total innovation and mesmerically succeed. 
He once said: ‘As there are no precedents I must create anew.’ And just as 
tellingly: ‘The century of aeroplanes deserves a music of its own.’ 

Unlike most schooled musicians, Debussy was a pure artist whose academic 
ability had little or no bearing on his eventual winding path towards creative 
brilliance. Bom in 1862, he was brought up in Paris and the South of France by 
a maternal aunt. Initially he dabbled in art before succumbing to the piano at the 
age of ten. One of his teachers being related to Verlaine, it is certain that the 
young Debussy met the bohemian poet’s hash-smoking friend the poetic genius 
Rimbaud. By eleven Debussy was studying at the Paris Conservatoire, where his 
bizarre chordings, strange tonalities and love of improvisation caused disconcer- 
tion. Yet by eighteen Tchaikovsky’s wealthy patroness wanted him as her 
household piano teacher. In 1884 he effortlessly won the Prix de Rome and 
spent the next three years in the Italian capital. 

Here Debussy was to live and write music. He met Liszt, whose spatial pedal 
technique would be discernible in Debussy’s later piano scores. Fascinated by 
Symbolist poetry and the Pre-Raphaelites, he wrote a piece for submission to 
the Conservatoire called La Damoiselle elue ( The Blessed Damozel), based on a 
poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Its wistful aspect, use of harp and woodwinds, 
wave-like motions and shimmering beauty in one unified block of sound caused 
his teachers to gasp. They considered Debussy to be afflicted with a disease that 
made him write music that was ‘bizarre, incomprehensible and impossible to 
execute’, which they also dubbed ‘vague impressionism’, thus giving Debussy 
and his followers in 1887 a perfect moniker to hang their art on. 

In the second half of the nineteenth century Paris was awash with the dreamy 
creations of Impressionism and Symbolist poets and painters. The iridescence of 
Monet, Manet, Degas and Renoir was paralleled by the darker, more evocative 
worlds of Baudelaire and Rimbaud and the work of the artists Moreau and 
Redon. At twenty-five Debussy threw himself into this ‘dream within a dream 
world’, hung out in the salon of the poet Mallarme, read Poe’s story The Fall of 
The House of Usher and Huysmans’s brilliantly decadent novel A reborns (Against 
Nature), which he described as a ‘symphony of odours’. He took up with Gaby 
Dupont, lived in a garret and went to Bayreuth to hear Wagner, a composer he 
would later disown. It was Debussy’s visit to the Centennial Exposition 
Universelle of 1889 (celebrating the Revolution) in Paris that sparked the 
greatest change in him. The start of the Belle Epoque with the opening of the 
Eiffel Tower saw the composer tour the folk-music pavilions to hear the music 
of Africa, Arabia and Russia and especially the gamelan orchestras of Bali and 
Southeast Asia. The elusive melodies and harmonies of the latter and the black- 



10 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


keyed scales of traditional Chinese and Irish folk musics turned his head. After 
that he stated: ‘I should prefer the creation of a type of music that has neither 
motifs nor themes, a more universal music.’ 

Both Clair de Lune ( Moonlight ) and the first of the Deux arabesques ( Two 
Arabesques) from this period are limpid piano pieces, flush with sensual delight as 
if the finger-runs, with their changing tempi, are playing a hazy summer 
reflection. In 1891 Debussy met Erik Satie in Montmartre and the two became 
lifelong friends. Satie purged Debussy of any liking for German music and spoke 
famously of a desire for ‘music without sauerkraut’. 

After two years’ work Debussy produced his masterpiece, Prelude a Vapres-midi 
d’unfaune , based on Mallarme’s erotic poem. At thirty-two he became instantly 
famous with a work which for many benchmarked an entire century of music. 
Gossamer-like, this short but intensely beautiful orchestral work glided across 
the senses, individual tones flowing out, silence slowly alternating with fantastic 
sonorities, Eastern and exotic timbres and moods hanging within the sound of 
clarinets, harp, flute and delicate strings. In 1894 no one had heard anything like 
it. The critics dubbed it superficial and indefinite. 

Personally Debussy entered into a period of confusion. He had many affairs 
and was for a short time engaged. He worked relentlessly on an opera, Pelleas et 
Melisande , based on a play by the Belgian Symbolist Maeterlinck. His perfec- 
tionism meant it took him eight years to complete. He was in London for Oscar 
Wilde’s trial, a writer he admired enormously. Publishers’ advances kept him in 
an extravagant lifestyle. His love of women led to Gaby Dupont’s attempted 
suicide in 1897. By 1899 he had married a Burgundy dressmaker, Rosalie ‘Lily’ 
Texier, with Satie as witness, and the same year he produced the allusive 
Nocturnes for orchestra. Nuages (Clouds), from this set of three pieces, was an 
exquisite example of Debussy’s precious art. 

Legal disputes about monies for Pelleas et Melisande dogged the composer, yet 
he lived and worked in a handsome green study with Chinese cats and 
ornamental silks. In 1903 came Estampes (Engravings), three piano pieces full 
of Spain. In 1904 he met Faure’s former mistress, Emma Bardac, who was 
married to a rich banker. After Debussy and Emma had an affair on the Channel 
Isles, Lily shot herself but recovered in hospital. Debussy scandalously refused to 
see his wife or pay her medical bills. Many friends turned away from him but he 
poured his turbulent emotions into the symphonic La Mer (The Sea) (1905), 
which was also inspired by the world-famous wave paintings of the Japanese 
artist Hokusai. 

Now living in the Bois de Boulogne, Debussy settled down to his last phase: 
one of domestic bliss, increased fame and growing illness. His new wife, Emma, 
bore him Chou-Chou, his beloved only daughter, for whom he wrote his 
famous Children’s Corner piano suite. Of more import were two sets of Images 
(1905—7), results of what he termed ‘experiments with musical chemistry’. In 
avoiding major and minor tonalities Debussy effortlessly conjured up reflections 
in water, church bells heard through mstling leaves and the quietude of 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


11 


moonlight. By 1908 Debussy’s music was a universal success. His Iberia (from 
Images) was considered another tour de force, particularly its slow and dreamlike 
section with celesta, oboes and bassoon. The Spanish composer Manuel de Falla 
found it intoxicating. At a later performance Ravel was moved to tears. Tragedy 
struck in 1909 when Debussy, while in London on a conducting tour, was 
diagnosed as having cancer. 

Still rejecting the music of Mahler and Schoenberg, Debussy survived to 
write his last great works, the two books of Preludes (1909—13), which perfectly 
elicited his ‘music of the play of waters, the play of curves described by changing 
breezes’. For example, Despas sur la neige ( Footsteps In The Snow) and La cathedrale 
engloutie ( The Sunken Cathedral) (the latter after Monet) are perfect interior 
sound worlds. The composer showed an interest in Hungarian dance and 
collaborated with the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio on a version of the 
martyrdom of St Sebastian. Such was his fame that Debussy attracted the likes of 
W. B. Yeats and Stravinsky to his house for intellectual soirees. 

The outbreak of the First World War depressed Debussy greatly. While both 
Satie and Ravel enlisted, Debussy’s illness kept him at home, numbed by 
morphine. Pouring himself into music, he edited works by Chopin and Bach, as 
well as writing three chamber sonatas, twelve Etudes (1915) and attempting to 
finish an opera based on Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid masterpiece The Fall of The 
House of Usher. Radium treatment and two operations did not stem his cancer 
and in March 1918, as German cannon and Zeppelins bombarded Paris, 
France’s greatest-ever composer expired surrounded by family and friends. 

Debussy’s critics use words like ‘nebulous’ to describe his output and it was 
true that he hated ‘musical mathematics’ but technically his music was nothing 
less than brilliant. His use of medieval modes in parallel motion, the whole-tone 
(6-note) and pentatonic (5-note) scales associated with Far Eastern music and 
folk styles, his strange floating and escaping harmonies and his grasp of 
instrumental timbre, not forgetting his outspoken writings and predictions, 
earned him the title ‘Father of Modem Music’. Certainly, the high points of 
twentieth-century electronic music, like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, 
were first envisaged in Debussy’s ample imagination. 

LISTENING 

Debussy In Paris - Alain Lombard (Erato 1990) 

Images, Estampes, Masques — Alice Ader (MusiFrance 1991) 

Orchestral Music - Bernard Haitink (Philips/Duo 1991) 

La Damoiselle elue — Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sony 1995) 

The Complete Works For Piano — Walter Gieseking (EMI 1995) 

Bernard Haitink’s two-disc set of the Prelude, the Nocturnes, Iberia, La Mer and 
other pieces with the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, from 1976—7, is a stand-out 
recording. The sway of the orchestra in Iberia is staggering. Yet I prefer 



12 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Lombard’s shimmering 1975 recording of the Prelude with the Strasbourg 
Philharmonic on the Debussy In Paris disc, which also includes La Mer. Salonen’s 
version of La Damoiselle elue is silken perfection, as is his interpretation of Nuages. 
For piano music the undisputed king of versions is Gieseking’s, recorded in 
mono between 1951 and 1955. Full of luminous colour, depth and the 
breathing pedal so close to Debussy’s requirements, this performance was 
digitally remastered for disc and released in 1995. Those who like their Debussy 
a little cooler may prefer Alice Ader’s renditions of Images, Estampes and Masques. 


MAURICE RAVEL 

Once described as an ‘epicure and connoisseur of instrumental jewellery’ by 
Stravinsky, Ravel stands as the third great French writer of quiet music after 
Debussy and Satie. The nocturnal stillness and translucent brilliance of his 
instrumental works, particularly his piano creations, have been overshadowed 
by the disproportionate attention given to his Bolero (1928), whose infectious 
repetition was only ever an experiment in Ravel’s mind, albeit one which 
influenced the genesis of Minimalism four decades later. 

Ravel’s life was one dedicated to finding musical perfection. Born in 1875 at 
Ciboure in the French Pyrenees of Swiss and Basque parentage, he soon moved 
to Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life. A gifted child, he started 
learning and playing music at seven, and by the age of twelve was studying 
harmony. Within two years he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, an 
institution which would occupy sixteen years of his relatively short life. Like 
Debussy, Ravel was strongly influenced by the Exposition Universelle of 1889, 
where he encountered Spanish music, the gamelan and Russian dance. An early 
short piece, Habanera (1895), reflected his deep interest in repetitive ideas and 
Spanish idioms. 

Influenced and befriended by Satie, the young Ravel was a typical bohemian 
who loved the writings of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Edgar Allan Poe; 
the paintings of Van Gogh, Cezanne and Whistler; and the music of Chopin, 
Wagner and Debussy. In 1899 he created Pavane pour une infante defunte (Pavane 
For A Dead Princess) which, according to the composer, was ‘a slow dance that a 
young Princess might have danced in bygone days at the Spanish court’. This is 
his all-time classic, a piece of melodic genius for piano which lasts barely six 
minutes but stays in the mind for ever. The subtlety and grace of its musical 
flow, its irregular use of time, its unexpected turns into new territory and 
beautiful resolution make it one of the great cut-off points between excessive 
Romanticism and twentieth-century modernism. Its publication in 1900, when 
Ravel was only twenty-five, made him famous but also confirmed the new 
dawn heralded by Satie and Debussy. 

The next five years would be taken up trying to achieve the prestigious Prix 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


13 


de Rome, an award which jealous committee members refused the young 
genius because of his outright flouting of convention. In 1905 there was so 
much outcry at Ravel’s failed fourth attempt that heads rolled at the Con- 
servatoire and Faure, Ravel’s teacher, became its director. The same year Ravel 
finished Sonatine and Miroirs (Mirrors), which again display a precise under- 
standing of short-form and the ability of music — particularly the latter with its 
sections Une barque sur V ocean (A Boat On The Ocean) and La vallee des cloches ( The 
Valley Of Bells) - to conjure up a sense of place. This faculty would be 
broadened in Rapsodie espagnole ( Spanish Rhapsody) three years later, a fif- 
teen-minute work for two pianos which many consider to be unrivalled as 
a musical portrait of Spain. Its soft ‘Prelude Of The Night’ is four minutes of 
pure Ambient meditation. 

Before the outbreak of war in 1914, Ravel was extremely creative. In 1908 
came his Gaspard de la nuit ( Gaspard Of The Night), a three-part piano piece 
inspired by some strange prose poetry, which many consider to be very difficult 
to play. Its middle section, Le Gibet (The Gibbet), involves a hypnotic tolling bell 
figure which conveys the swaying movement of the sunburnt corpse depicted in 
Aloysius Bertrand’s writing. In 1910 came Ma mere Voye (Mother Goose), a 
children’s piece which reflected Ravel’s search for simplicity. Its opening 
section, Pavane de la belle au bois dormant (Pavane For The Sleeping Beauty), is 
a masterpiece of stillness. During the next four years Ravel wrote waltzes, a 
ballet, met Stravinsky and executed the short (one minute fifteen seconds) 
Prelude, another exquisite delicacy. 

Too short to be accepted into the army, Ravel was eventually accepted by the 
airforce, as a driver in the transport corps. He was by all accounts a brave 
contributor to the war effort, but was discharged in 1916 because of dysentery. 
His dedication to lost friends, Le Tombeau de Couperin (The Tomb Of Couperin) 
(1917), is full of the wistful solitude which characterizes nearly all of Ravel’s 
work. By the time of Debussy’s death in 1918 he was France’s foremost 
composer but bad memories of the Paris Conservatoire made him refuse the 
Legion of Honour two years later. After this he left Paris and did much 
orchestration, including works by Chopin, Satie and even Debussy. In 1928, the 
year of Bolero, he toured the US and Canada on condition that he was provided 
with the best French wines and cigarettes. He was also awarded an honorary 
degree by Oxford University. By the 1930s he had succumbed to depression, 
due mainly to insomnia he had picked up during the war. Nevertheless he 
enjoyed Parisian jazz clubs, but in 1932, after a car smash, he developed a rare 
brain disease which eventually robbed him of his talent to write, read or even 
remember music. Fearing further mental disintegration, he risked a dangerous 
brain operation in the winter of 1937 from which he died. 

An absolute perfectionist and dandy, Ravel would shut himself up for months 
in order to attain what he called ‘a ripened conception’. Only to be seen on 
long, thought-filled walks across Paris in the early hours of the morning, he was 
extremely self-critical and once stated: ‘I can be occupied for years without 



14 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


writing a single note.’ It is said that, once finished, a Ravel composition needed 
not one jot of correction. In eliminating the superfluous in search of clarity, in 
‘feeling intensely’ what he wrote, Ravel ended his life dissatisfied. In the end he 
stated: ‘I have written very little . . .I’ve said nothing, I have still everything to 
say.’ An extremely private man though he was, Ravel wrote highly commu- 
nicative music which remains essential listening for anyone wishing to under- 
stand the arc of twentieth-century music. 

His art, which grows more luminous on repeated listening, reveals an interest 
in folk and jazz modes. Ravel derived his parallel chordings from Satie and, as in 
jazz, mixed time signatures. His expanded key concepts gave his music the 
impressive breadth of his beloved Symbolist poetry, while his themes, both 
natural and pictorial, were the stuff of the ardent enthusiast of post-impres- 
sionism. Yet he also loved the baroque keyboardists, whose structuring elements 
led to his innovative inelastic movement, which in turn greatly influenced Ligeti 
and, more importantly, Terry Riley and the whole Minimalist revolution of the 
1960s. 

LISTENING 

Complete Piano Works - Philippe Entremont (Sony 1994) 

Piano Works — Vlado Perlemuter (Nimbus 1996) 

Integrate de V Oeuvre Pour Piano Vols. 1 and 2 - 

Begona Uriarte (Wergo 1988/1989) 

Orchestral Works — Jean Martinon (EMI 1999) 

Those looking for an antique sound that Ravel would surely have appreciated 
should try the Perlemuter. The pianist was a confidant of the composer who 
studied with him and in 1929 played the whole piano oeuvre live. The disc also 
gives the text that inspired Gaspard de la nuit. The Wergo discs are pristinely 
presented with unusual pieces, Vol. 2 including Rapsodie espagnole as well as 
Bolero in a version for two pianos. Yet in terms of enunciation and that sensuous 
saturated piano sound, the Entremont, recorded in 1974, excels. This is a 
brilliant disc which includes the sublime Pavane pour une infante defunte. 
Conductor Jean Martinon made Ravel’s orchestral music famous after the 
Second World War. His two-disc set, recorded in 1974, includes a vast slew of 
music from the Pavane right up to Bolero — here in one of its most bewitching 
versions. 


FREDERICK DELIUS 

One only has to hear pieces like the Irmelin Prelude, A Song Before Sunrise , Sea 
Drift, Summer Night On The River and On Hearing The First Cuckoo In Spring to 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


15 


gain an insight into the twilight world of Frederick Delius. The ethereal music 
of Delius was the closest England came to Debussy’s vision. Modal scales and 
block-like parallel motion were there in evidence yet there is a Romantic 
rapture and unsettling movement to Delius’s music which links it to the great 
works of Mahler and even Wagner. Simultaneously looking back and forward, 
Delius had the gift of creating a music of great tranquillity. 

Bom in Y orkshire in 1 862 to a prosperous German merchant, Delius emigrated 
to Florida in the 1880s to mn an orange plantation and was inspired to begin 
composing by hearing labourers singing American folk songs. After returning to 
Europe, he studied from the age of twenty-four at Leipzig Conservatory, where 
he met the Norwegian composer Grieg. A move to Paris led to a riotous life of sex 
and alcohol in the company of innovative painters and writers. He eventually 
married a painter, Jelka Rosen, and settled down in 1 897 to a life of composition in 
a beautiful house at Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau. 

Here Delius wrote with great vigour, producing operas, choral works, string 
quartets and concertos — the usual varied output of a gifted composer. But his 
genius lies in shorter, quieter moments, which began with the 1898 nocturne 
Paris: The Song Of A Great City. With Brigg Fair (1907) and In A Summer Garden 
(1908) he honed his rhapsodic bucolic writing, but it was in On Hearing The First 
Cuckoo In Spring (1912) that his ability to perfectly capture melancholy shone. 
Over seven minutes Delius used a small orchestra of strings, woodwinds and 
horns to capture the emotions of spring, of sunlight seen on green vales, nature 
unfolding its opulence, nostalgia heard through folk melody and the simple tune 
of the evening cuckoo. Though he said he disliked England, its mral hush 
dapples through the sensuous hue of this work to create a tme Ambient 
masterpiece. 

Delius had contracted syphilis as a young man in Paris and, as a result, in his 
later years became paralysed and blind, although his appalling condition did not 
stop him dictating his fantastic musical visions for posterity. He died in 1934. 

LISTENING 

Beecham Conducts Delius (EMI 1987) 

This disc contains fabulous versions of the orchestral poems to nature, in 
readings both subtle and luminous by Delius’s greatest champion, Sir Thomas 
Beecham, at the helm of the Royal Philharmonic in the late 1950s and early 60s. 


CHARLES GRIFFES 


Tragically, just as his music was gaining recognition in his native land, Charles 
Tomlinson Griffes was to die at the age of thirty-five of pneumonia and pleurisy. 



16 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


The most significant American Impressionist of his day, Griffes wrote the elegiac 
and fantasy-sprinkled The Pleasure-Dome Of Kubla Khan (1912—9), which 
absorbed all the colour and flow of his idol Debussy. Born in New York in 
1884, Griffes studied in Berlin for four years before returning home to become a 
teacher at twenty-three. A man of reverie, he nevertheless supported the more 
primal music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg while revelling in the ornate sounds 
of Ravel, Debussy and the Far East. His dreamy woodwind orchestrations and 
use of wide intervals gave his music an opulent texture as evinced by the suitably 
‘foggy’ Pleasure-Dome, a piece inspired by Coleridge’s opium-induced poem. 
Three Tone Pictures: The Lake At Evening, The Vale Of Dreams, and The Night 
Winds (1912), The White Peacock (1916) and Poem For Flute And Orchestra (1918) 
are visionary soundscapes whose smooth Ambience (aided by a craftsman’s 
attention to the nuances of celesta and harp) was years ahead of its time. 

LISTENING 

The Musical Fantasies of Charles Griffes (with Deems Taylor) — Gerard Schwarz, 
Seattle Symphony Orchestra (Delos 1990) 

This exemplary performance of Griffes by Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony 
makes one wonder and revel. 

The Kairn of Koridwen — Emil De Cou (Koch 1994) 

Derived from the Druidic legend of The Sanctuary of the Goddess of the Moon, 
this work was written in 1916 to accompany a dance-drama and is fifty-five 
minutes of pure dream music for horns, flute, celesta, harp and piano. 


CHARLES IVES 


The son of a American Civil War bandleader who set out to break the musical 
rules, Charles Ives became simultaneously an American folk hero and a 
millionaire philanthropist who was the first to provide life insurance for widows 
and orphans. In his quest for a music of utopian transcendence he arrived at 
Ambient music with the 1906 compositions The Unanswered Question and 
Central Park In The Dark, where superimpositions and discrepant sounds created 
environmental music years before Cage explored the area. 

Ives was a New Englander, born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874. He 
played organ in the local church and drums in his father George’s marching 
band. Ives Senior taught his son to ignore rules and think of pure sound — of 
what it would be like to hear two bands together playing different tunes; or 
splitting up a band into quarters and standing in the middle of the town square 



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17 


to hear the effect; playing a popular tune in two different keys; or exploring 
‘micro tones’. From this experience George Ives took ideas that would later, 
through his son, be fundamental to Minimal and Ambient music. He even built 
a quarter-tone piano to play tone clusters and reproduce the sound of peeling 
bells. 

Charles Ives went to study at Yale in 1894 and after four years realized that he 
would never make a living with the kind of innovative music he wished to 
write. At twenty-four he entered the insurance business and at thirty-five he 
founded his own firm, all the time composing furiously. His music was multi- 
tonal with a great degree of freedom in the areas of rhythm and key, full of 
cluster chords with allusions to American hymns and folk song. He didn’t even 
use regular bar lines or key signatures. Much of his work contains dissonant or 
inharmonious chords. Working in isolation in his spare time and holidays, he 
produced music that most people found incomprehensible and unplayable. 
Scripts piled up in a Connecticut barn. 

It is said that Mahler was so impressed with Ives’s work that he took a copy 
of his Symphony No. 3 back with him to Vienna in 1911 with the intention of 
conducting it. Alas Mahler died and the manuscript was lost until the late 
1940s. Ives composed pieces for chimes and church bells, small brass en- 
sembles, marching bands, hundreds of songs, and of course there are the 
orchestral works. Of these, Hymn (for strings) from 1904, Central Park In The 
Dark and 77 le Unanswered Question (both for chamber ensemble) from 1906 
and the two extravagant creations Three Places In New England (for orchestra) 
and Concord Sonata (for piano) from 1903 to 1915 all contain the sublime 
stillness of Ambience. 

Having only rarely heard his own music and then only when he hired 
musicians to play it, Ives felt a growing frustration which brought on a heart 
attack in 1918. During the 1920s he published some of his own music and 
writings on the same. In 1930 he withdrew from business, but the huge, 
beautiful Concord Sonata had made an impact. His music was conducted in 
Europe, Webern doing him the honours in Vienna. He spent a long time 
travelling, savouring his belated success. 

In 1939 Ives became the most important living American composer when the 
Concord Sonata received its debut in New York. In 1947 he became an American 
hero when he was offered the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 3 , but the 
ever-tetchy composer declined the award. By 1948 Bernstein was conducting 
Ives’s music with the New York Philharmonic and at eighty the composer died 
a happy man. 

Ives’s contribution to the history of twentieth-century music has never been 
in any doubt, inspiring both the likes of Schoenberg and Boulez to venture into 
unknown areas. The radical style of his works has often upset critics, certain 
pieces of music being intentionally impossible to play in order to push the 
sensibilities of its interpreters. His double life as businessman and composer 
probably held back commercial exploitation of his music but it is in his influence 



18 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


on the development of Ambience and Minimalism that he has been neglected. 
His use of microtones and cluster chords had a direct influence on Minimalism 
while his multi-dimensional music, as heard in Three Places In New England and 
the haunting seven-minute Central Park In The Dark , where a brass band breaks 
in on the eerie quiet to crescendo like A Day In The Life from The Beatles’ Sgt. 
Pepper album and then disappears back into the musical hue, is the very essence 
of sound-field multi-track recordings of the 1960s. Above all, Ives realized that 
sound created a charged atmosphere and not a body of rules which dictated 
what certain instruments should play and be played. 

LISTENING 

Concord Sonata — Herbert Henck (Wergo 1988) 

This work is Ives’s beautiful tribute to writers and thinkers Emerson, 
Hawthorne, the Alcotts and Thoreau, leading lights of the New England 
movement Transcendentalism between 1840 and 1860. The piece is mostly 
stately piano but is assisted by flute and viola, and one can hear traces of Debussy 
and the future Keith Jarrett. Brilliant use is made of cluster chords. 

Symphony No. 2 — Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Deutsche 
Grammophon 1990) 

An excellent introductory disc with Bernstein conducting which also includes 
the essential Hymn , Central Park In The Dark and The Unanswered Question. 


IBERIAN SOUNDS 

The cool effect of music emanating from Spanish and Portuguese sensibilities 
has certainly coloured the development of Ambient music. During the late 
nineteenth century Spanish music was altered for the better by the influence of 
French musical Impressionism. Over the successive century its growing stature 
affected other musics, notably the sound of Miles Davis and various composers’ 
approaches to acoustic guitar. 

Many point to Felipe Pedrell, a teacher in Madrid, as being the source of this 
influence. He taught both Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albeniz to overcome 
compositional problems by absorbing folk melodies into a wider Impressionistic 
style. A Catalonian, Isaac Albeniz was the first to have success in this technique. 
Born in 1860, he made his debut on piano in Barcelona at the age of four. Gifted 
and wayward, he travelled all over the US, South America and Eastern Europe 
before meeting Debussy and Ravel in the Paris of the 1890s. Thence he retired 
to Nice to write Iberia between 1906 and 1909. Considered a masterpiece, this 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


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series of twelve piano pieces conjures up the peninsula in terms of subtlety and 
nuance. 

Though Albeniz died in France in 1909, his work would influence Manuel 
de Falla, who was born in Cadiz in 1876 and would become Spain’s first great 
Modernist. This came about after Falla had spent seven years in Paris, as an 
excellent graduate of the Madrid Conservatoire, on a musical voyage of 
discovery that took in the circles of Ravel and Debussy. His Cuatro Piezas 
Espanolas ( Four Spanish Pieces) of 1914 culminated his stay and paid homage to 
Albeniz, but were more spare and forward-looking than the earlier composer’s 
work. After that Falla returned to Spain to finish his more exotic Noches en los 
jardines de Espaha (. Nights In The Gardens Of Spain) (191 1—16), a three-part set a la 
Debussy of symphonic impressions of the beauties of Granada and Cordoba. A 
friend of the anti-fascist writer Lorca, he nevertheless lasted out the Spanish 
Civil War. Finding the Franco regime distasteful, he emigrated in 1939 to 
Argentina, where he conducted and finished a guitar and piano tribute to 
Debussy and Pedrell. He died there in 1946. 

Heitor Villa-Lobos is considered one of the greatest writers for the acoustic 
guitar. His ability to conjure up a twilight stillness which glows through slow 
cascades of guitar ambience is one of the finest achievements of twentieth- 
century music. This was made possible by his invention of the choros, a new type 
of compositional technique meshing Brazilian music with Indian and popular 
tunes. 

Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887. He received no formal 
education and, incredibly, taught himself every available instrument. He played 
in street bands, travelled Brazil in search of folklore and accompanied silent 
films. His first Choros (1920), for guitar, brought him fame. The pianist Artur 
Rubinstein discovered Villa-Lobos in 1923, just as he had finished his en- 
igmatically beautiful Popular Brazilian Suite For Guitar. He was sent to Paris, 
where even Varese praised his eclectic modernism. 

During the 1930s he was given control of Brazil’s musical education and 
wrote fusion music in the form of the Bachianas Brasileiras , a series of nine 
Baroque-Brazilian suites modelled on Bach, written for all manner of instru- 
ments and reflecting aspects of musical Impressionism and Minimalism. The 
limpid lyrical song from No. 5 (1938), for voice and cellos, became his most 
famous piece. Though he was criticized for the large number (some say 
thousands) of his works, many for slushy flutes and orchestra, Villa-Lobos’s 
guitar pieces remain brilliant distillations. His Five Preludes For Guitar (1940) are 
superlative, immediately instilling a contemplative mood in the listener. 
Though Villa-Lobos died in 1959, Finnish guitarist Timo Korhonen has 
recently said: ‘The technical inventiveness which his guitar works display, their 
use of harmonics, their dynamic and emotional climaxes are unsurpassed in 
guitar literature. They are one at the same time, the bread and butter, the crown 
jewels, the Mount Everest of the guitarist’s repertoire!’ 

Another Hispanic composer for guitar who deserves mention is Joaquin 



20 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Rodrigo, who was bom in Valencia, Spain, in 1901. Blinded by diphtheria at 
the age of three, he nevertheless showed a tremendous interest in music from 
the age of eight and entered Valencia’s Conservatoire at sixteen. After studying 
in Madrid he went to Paris, where he worked hard as a composer in the 1920s 
and 30s. He and his wife Vicky travelled between Germany, Spain and France 
before returning to Spain in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War and the 
beginning of the Second World War. With them they carried the score for the 
Concierto de Aranjuez ( The Aranjuez Concerto), destined to become one of the 
twentieth century’s greatest classics. 

This piece, with its flamenco guitar wedged against horns and strings, 
clarinets, oboes and flutes, is pure Ambience in three movements — wafting 
between Impressionism and a sort of strident Minimalism. When premiered 
in 1940, it made Rodrigo Spain’s leading composer after Falla. He became a 
professor at Madrid University in 1946 and composed a total of some 170 
pieces. Though much of his output is saccharine and simplistic, both Seville 
Fantasy (1952) and Royal Dance (ballet featuring guitar, 1954) are notable. 
During the 1950s and 60s Rodrigo wrote for the guitarist Andres Segovia 
but it was the release of the recording of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Miles 
Davis in 1960 that made him a star. By emphasizing its slow part alongside 
Davis’s characteristic pinched trumpet delivery plus sound use of rhythmic 
patterns by orchestrator Gil Evans, this version showed just how clever 
Rodrigo’s writing really was. The composer has also had a profound 
influence on the guitar music of John McLaughlin. Having lived through- 
out, and contributed so much to, the twentieth century, Rodrigo died 
peacefully in Madrid in 1999. 

LISTENING 

Albeniz, Falla and Rodrigo are celebrated on several EMI CD collections, the 
first two in versions from the 1950s and 60s, the latter in orchestral works 
recorded in 1995 in Mexico. An essential recording is Miles Davis’s Sketches Of 
Spain (Columbia 1960), which also contains work by Falla. For Villa-Lobos, 
Timo Korhonen’s Complete Works For Guitar on Ondine are superb. Volume 2 
(1995), containing the Preludes, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, the Brazilian Suite and 
Choros No. 1, is outstanding. 


WILLIAM DUDDELL 

Often credited with inventing the first electronic instrument, although Thomas 
Edison’s 1877 tin-foil phonograph had precedence, William Duddell kick- 
started electronic music as we know it today. His Singing Arc allied to a 
keyboard generated actual music during the early 1900s. Like Marconi, he was 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


21 


interested in wireless telegraphy and the possibilities presented by alternating 
current. 

Duddell, born in 1872, was an outstanding electro-physicist who had been 
privately educated in the UK and France and had risen quickly through the 
prestigious City & Guilds Schools via scholarships. His reputation was such 
that when new electric ‘arc’ lamps, which were being fitted in turn-of-the- 
century London, began to play up he was called in to solve the problem. These 
lamps whistled quite loudly and Duddell explained the problem by demon- 
strating the effects of fluctuating current. In 1899, as a result of rigging up the 
equipment for lectures, he invented the Singing Arc — a gizmo which could 
generate musical notes by way of a keyboard which interrupted oscillations in 
a circuit. 

Although he happened upon electronic music through science, Duddell 
deserved recognition and was duly made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1913, 
four years before his early death. 


THADDEUS CAHILL 


The Canadian businessman Thaddeus Cahill will for ever be remembered for 
the invention of the giant Telharmonium, which weighed 200 tons, measured 
sixty feet across and cost the New England Electric Music Company the 
staggering sum of $200,000 in 1906. With the Telharmonium Cahill exploited 
to the hilt Edison’s ideas in telecommunications and recording. This colossus of 
a machine used banks of whirring, rotating electromagnetic generators to create 
electrical impulses which, through a keyboard and various other controls, were 
sent down wires to a series of telephone receivers fitted with acoustic horns. In 
the days before amplification and speakers the Telharmonium was indeed an 
innovation, quite loud and with a huge harmonic range from which the player 
could mix different frequencies. In some ways it was the first great synthesizer 
and Cahill’s later ideas of generating its music to homes throughout the US 
prefigured both Muzak and on-line computer-accessed music. 

Alternatively called an Electric Music Plant or Dynamophone, Cahill’s 
invention dates from 1895 and was patented in 1897. His desire was to ‘produce 
the notes and chords of a musical composition with any timbre desired’. Three 
machines were built, an important demonstration in Massachusetts and New 
York City provoking prominent Italian composer, pianist and intellectual 
Ferruccio Busoni to write a rapturous approval in his 1907 paper ‘Sketch 
Of A New Aesthetic Of Music’. In this he disowned all past music and saw the 
Telharmonium as a gateway to ‘unlimited tonal material . . . abstract sounds . . . 
new concepts of harmony’ . Busoni wanted ‘pure invention and sentiment in 
tone colours’ and saw the Telharmonium as allowing musicians to rhapsodically 
‘follow the line of the rainbow and vie with the clouds in breaking sunbeams’. 



22 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


As the only early commercial non-valve electronic instrument ever made, it 
was indeed a breakthrough. Its image of the keyboard surrounded by loads of 
wires and electronics established the futuristic look for all time. Cahill developed 
a further instrument between 1908 and 1911. By that time he wanted to pump 
‘Telharmony’ into hotels, theatres, restaurants and houses via the telephone 
system and have a Telharmonium in every city. The problem was, it jammed 
the existing phone system. And anyway its sheer bulk and cost were prohibitive. 
In retrospect it is clear that the increasing popularity of radio killed off the idea. 
But, with its harmonic versatility, its characteristically noisy gear shifts (its 
rotating magnets anticipated the Hammond organ) and its ability to synthesize 
to a very high standard of sound production, the Telharmonium was the first 
true classic of electronic music production. 


LEE DE FOREST 

One of the most significant inventors of the twentieth century, Lee De Forest 
made a contribution to electronic and Ambient music that is still being felt 
today. Not only did he invent the valve, which allowed for amplification and 
much-improved sound quality, but he also made significant contributions to 
recording technology. Many believe that his role in developing computers, 
telephone, radio, microphone, TV and other communications was so crucial 
that it was only eclipsed in 1947 with the coming of the transistor. 

An interesting man, whose life reads like a film script (he actually died in 
Hollywood in 1961), De Forest suffered ostracism as a child and litigation and 
bankruptcy several times as an adult. Thrice married, he never got the Nobel 
Prize he so richly deserved but lived to see his best innovations, bought from 
him for a song, turned into multimillion-dollar corporate profits. A rugged 
individualist in the American tradition, De Forest was a great showman who in 
1910 broadcast Enrico Caruso singing from the Met in New York to prove the 
worth of his innovation. 

In 1894 a German scientist named Herz realized that electromagnetic waves 
travelled through the air at the speed of light. In 1899 the part Italian part Irish 
Marconi was transmitting these waves using wireless telegraphy across the 
English channel. In 1904 an Englishman, Ambrose Fleming, developed the 
diode, a glass tube through which a current could pass. De Forest’s genius was in 
synthesizing these innovations together. In 1906 he introduced the idea of a 
triode into Fleming’s so-called vacuum tube in order to control the flow of 
electric current, hence the name thermionic valve or simply valve. 

De Forest had grown up in Alabama among black children as his minister 
father taught at a segregated college. Made to feel isolated by whites and 
confused, he lost himself in inventions. After working his way through Yale, he 
emerged with a brilliant PhD in electronic communications in 1899. After a 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


23 


time working for Western Electronics in Chicago he formed his own company 
in 1902 and in 1907 patented his new ‘valve’ system under the name Audion 
Tube for amplification purposes. 

A contradiction in terms, De Forest never tired of demonstrating his 
invention, yet by 1912 he had lost two companies. Though bad at business, 
he was a dazzling innovator. By that year he had developed a circular feedback 
system using his tubes plus a much higher-definition amplification system by 
arranging transfer of signals from one valve to another. In 1913 he was 
experimenting with magnetic-wire recording for possible use in film and in 
the 1920s developed Phonofilm, an optical recording system which transformed 
sound waves into pulses of light. This was initially ridiculed by the motion- 
picture industry but later modified and widely applied. 

It is said that an Audion Piano based on beat frequencies, began in 1915 but 
never completed, prefigured the Ondes Martenot and Armand Givelet’s 
electronic organ, both invented in 1928. During his life De Forest applied 
for 300 patents and eventually his valve amplification system became much 
prized in the recording industry. Even innovative Ambient Techno musicians of 
the 1990s praised valve equipment for its warmth and depth of sound. Today 
specialist high-fidelity companies will supply complete valve-driven sound 
systems for hundreds of thousands of pounds. 


LUIGI RUSSOLO 

The Italian Luigi Russolo was the youngest of the Milanese Futurists who allied 
themselves to ‘a new form of beauty’ as outlined by the rich artistic entrepreneur 
and writer Filippo Marinetti in 1909 in terms of ‘violent electric moons’ and ‘the 
chatter of propellers’. Though the Futurists have often been seen as extremist 
Modernists who hastened the path of young Italy towards Fascism, it is 
important to point out Russolo’s contribution to both electronic and Ambient 
music. 

As a painter, Russolo was one of the first to explore synaesthesia, or sensory 
confusion. Works like Perfume and Music (1909-11) attempt to convey odour 
and sound through kaleidoscopic colour and can be seen as preludes to the more 
intense psychedelic sensibility of the 1960s. In 1913 he published his now 
fampus ‘Art Of Noises’ manifesto in which he outlined the need for a new 
mqsic based on a wider acceptability of sound. He wrote: ‘We are now satiated 
with Beethoven and Wagner. We find more enjoyment in the combination of 
noises of trams, carriages and crowds.’ He was fascinated with the actual 
gradations of pitch of all sounds and recognized that ‘noise’ is only different 
from musical sound in terms of the latter’s purposive arrangement. 

Incredibly, he saw, well before the coming of real electronic music in the 
1950s, that gradations up and down the chromatic scale could be achieved by 



24 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


seemingly non-musical devices. So convinced was he of his vision that he 
enlisted the help of the percussionist Uno Piatti in building ‘noise machines’ 
(intonarumori) , which looked like big wooden boxes with megaphone horns and 
handles, to produce the desired effect. The result was a series of rustling, 
burbling and detonating sounds. Unveiled during a Futurist concert with 
Marinetti in Milan in 1914, they were highly successful. 

In addition Russolo developed keyboard noise generators called psofarmoni 
and also in 1914 he performed a series of concerts at the Coliseum in London. 
His compositions had strange titles like A Meeting Of Motorcars And Aeroplanes 
and The Awakening Of The Great City. His interests in acoustics and sound, his 
illumination of the importance of environmental and artificially produced noise 
and randomness make him a visionary forerunner of Pierre Schaeffer’s musique 
concrete (‘concrete’ or ‘real sound’ music) as well as the sonic explorations of 
Stockhausen, Cage and even Brian Eno. 


LEON THEREMIN 

The Russian Leon Theremin (bom Lev Termen) has passed into legend, not 
only for his invention of his ingenious ether- wave instmment the Theremin, 
operated by the movement of hands in the air, but because of his extraordinary 
life and the subsequent uptake of his instrument by pop and rock groups of the 
1960s. Certainly his invention was the first of the pioneering electronic devices 
to hit the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic — firstly on The Beach 
Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ single of 1966 and secondly in 1969 on Led Zeppelin’s 
second album, where its siren-like sound filled in the stuttering guitar masonry 
of what has become one of rock’s greatest creations, ‘Whole Lotta Love’. 

Theremin was born in St Petersburg in 1896. In his teens he showed a 
pronounced interest in both physics and music. He studied the first at Petrograd 
University, the second at the city’s Musical Institute. In 1919, some years after St 
Petersburg was renamed Leningrad, he became Director of the Laboratory of 
Electrical Oscillations in its Physico-Technical Institute. His interest in radio 
engineering made him dream of uniting electronics and music. In August 1920 
he demonstrated his remarkable Aetherphon at the All-Union Electrical 
Congress. The method of sound creation was through the interaction of 
two radio frequencies, one fixed and the other variable. The method of playing 
was by movement of the hands near an aerial, volume being controlled by a 
pedal. Quality of sound, or timbre, came from a variety of filters operated by a 
simple switch. 

By 1923 Theremin had refined the Aetherphon into the Thereminvox, 
which still had an aerial but also a ring for the left hand which controlled 
volume, looked compact but impressive. The right hand could make pitch 
changes and even produce chords, but neither hand actually needed to touch 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


25 


the ‘space-controlled’ device. It looked like magic, and the Soviet leader Lenin 
was impressed. Early models used earphones and cardboard horns but by the 
mid- 1920s the loudspeaker had been invented and thus the device was now a 
full electronic instrument. Theremin’s friend Clara Rockmore, a classical 
violinist, became its leading virtuoso. Though it was monophonic (capable 
of playing only one note at a time), the Thereminvox had an impressive three- 
octave range. As envoys of the new socialist Russia Theremin and Rockmore 
toured throughout Europe between 1923 and 1927. 

In the latter year they arrived in the US, where Theremin quickly patented 
the device. Changing his name from Lev Termen to Professor Leon Theremin, 
he settled down to a decade of celebrity. He struck a deal with RCA in 1928 for 
the manufacture of what he now called the Theremin. In 1929, after he had 
developed a four-octave keyboard model, RCA emblazoned its advertising 
with the logo: ‘Not a radio. Not a phonograph. Not like anything you have 
ever heard or seen!’ Though the Theremin was eagerly taken up by musicians 
and composers, the general public stayed away and sales of the instrument never 
exceeded the hundreds. In 1930 Theremin even created a cylindrical finger- 
board version which looked like a cello. 

Though the Theremin was used in symphonic music in Leningrad in the 
mid-1920s, it wasn’t until Joseph Schillinger’s 1st Airphonic Suite , performed in 
Ohio in 1929, that it really entered the concert repertoire. Edgard Varese’s 
important Ecuatorial (1934) called for two Theremins. In New York the 
instrument was often used in dance and music halls, and in 1932 there was 
even a ‘Theremin Electrical Symphony’ in which sixteen of the dream- weaving 
boxes performed at the city’s Carnegie Hall. Though composers like Charles 
Ives and Aaron Copland would work for the instrument, and the radical 
conductor Leopold Stokowski would champion its application, it was in the 
world of the cinema that it really took off. One can hear it evoking the delirium 
of a drunken writer in Billy Wilder’s film Lost Weekend of the mid- 1940s, or the 
strangeness of alien contact on the soundtracks of classic sci-fi movies like The 
Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Forbidden 
Planet (1956). 

All this time Theremin’s life had gone through turmoil. His marriage to a 
black entertainer in New York broke a taboo in a still-segregated America. A 
return to Russia in 1938 led to his being kidnapped by the KGB. Seen as a 
defector in Stalin’s eyes, he was sent to work in the mines for his pains. 
Eventually he was transferred to the KGB’s espionage centre and spent the Cold 
War developing sophisticated surveillance equipment. 

Between 1954 and 1966 the famous Robert Moog generated five more 
versions of the Theremin. He increased the octave range and applied the ideas to 
the experimental music of John Cage, most notably in Variations V (1965), 
where dancers trigger music generated by antennae. Subsequently the music of 
The Beach Boys would fix the Theremin in the public imagination for ever, 
‘Good Vibrations’ becoming a staple in advertising jingles, television and film. 



26 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


In 1988 contemporary Ambient guru Brian Eno included a new Theremin 
track, ‘For Her Atoms’, performed by Theremin’s granddaughter Lydia, on his 
album Music For Films 3. At the time Professor of Electronic Musical Instruments 
at the University of Moscow, Theremin himself approved the track before its 
release in the West. 

In the era of glasnost Theremin was able to return to New York in the early 
1990s and reunite with Clara Rockmore and once again demonstrate the 
instrument. Though imitations calling themselves strange names like the 
Ethonium and Croix Sonore have come and gone in its wake, no other 
instrument has captured the imagination like the Theremin. From its tmly 
Ambient use by Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin’s 1973 US tour to its reapplica- 
tion in Ambient electro nica of the 1990s it has become a true archetype of 
musical innovation. Theremin himself died in Moscow in 1993, apparently a 
contented man. 


MAURICE MARTENOT 

Like Theremin, Maurice Martenot lent his name to an electronic device which 
would become one of the most abiding musical inventions of the twentieth 
century. Its quivering, bewitching sound became the centrepiece of Olivier 
Messiaen’s masterful Ambient movement of his luminous Turangalila-symphonie 
( Turangalila Symphony) of 1946-8. In fact the instrument was so successful that it 
has become a permanent part of French musical life. Its unmistakable dreamy 
sound has been heard on over 1,000 film soundtracks. 

Martenot was born in Paris in 1898. His standard middle-class education 
included classes in cello, composition and piano at the Conservatoire. An 
interest in exotic sounds, particularly those of the Far East, led him to invent the 
‘ ondes musicales’ (musical waves), later known as the Ondes Martenot. After 
meeting Theremin in 1923 and being impressed by the possibilities of the 
‘ether- wave instrument’, Martenot developed his own. He premiered it in Paris 
in April 1928 as soloist in the forgotten Symphonic Poem by Levidis. Within a 
year the prescient Edgard Varese was using it to produce synthetic sounds in his 
Ameriques. Martenot was on his way to fame and fortune. 

Like the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot used the principle of two swaying 
vibrations produced by radio valves of different frequencies whose interaction 
produced sound. The early version of 1928 was in two pieces: the right-hand 
side used a pull wire, the left contained the timbral, volume and harmonic 
controls. Quickly Martenot unified these functions into a single unit and 
developed a ribbon and ring device which stretched across a guide keyboard 
and altered the pitch. By the early 1930s he had refined an excellent keyboard 
capable of microtonal changes, with slide and vibrational qualities aided by the 
ribbon. Amplification could be varied, and included the use of the ‘ palme or 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


27 


floral-shaped speaker covered with resonating strings. In adding this feature to 
the various tone colours and filtering provided by the left-hand controls, 
Martenot developed one of the most versatile electronic instruments of the 
pre-synthesizer era. 

With his sister Gillette he played over 1 ,000 Ondes Martenot concerts, including 
the 1938 Paris Exposition, when eight of his instruments played in unison. He 
founded at Neuilly a school specializing in the Art of the Martenot which eventually 
had branches at most French music schools. Naturally enough, he became the 
leading exponent of the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 1940s. 

The list of composers who have used the Ondes Martenot is large. Varese 
substituted it for the Theremins he used in his 1934 Ecuatorial , while Messiaen 
very eagerly used six in his Fetes des belles eaux (. Feasts Of The Beautiful Waters) of 
1937. Pierre Boulez advocated its properties, played it and even wrote a quartet 
for Ondes Martenots in 1945—6. 

Ravel, Samuel Barber, Darius Milhaud and Satie devotee Arthur Honegger 
all contributed to the instrument’s repertoire, the last-named stating in 1951 that 
it had both ‘power and speed of utterance’. The seven-octave keyboard range 
and other qualities of the Ondes Martenot have been likened to the human 
voice. But though its popularity in France has never waned — it is used in 
theatres and by young French composers to this day — it was always viewed as 
very much a French invention and property. Martenot himself died in 1980 
having significantly opened up electronic and Ambient music for the twentieth 
century. His legacy can best be heard in the exquisite reverie ‘The Garden Of 
Sleeping Love’ from Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony. 


JORG MAGER 

Often dubbed the father of German electronic music, Jorg Mager was bom in 
1880 and began his career as an organist. He worked briefly as a school teacher 
but fascination with microtones - the tones between the keys of a piano which 
are usually heard in folk and ethnic music, particularly that of India — led him to 
the invention of instmments and specifically to the application of micro tones to 
keyboards. In doing so between 1921 and 1930 he contributed enormously to 
the advent of the synthesizer. 

In 1911 he succeeded in constmcting a quarter-tone harmonium, thus 
producing keyboard sounds that previously could only be heard on a violin. 
After the First World War he studied electronics in Berlin and worked with the 
Lorenz firm in creating the Elektrophon in 1921. This was a monophonic 
musical device based on the frequency screech produced by radio. It was very 
much a contraption but was upgraded in 1923 to the Sphaerophon (meaning 
‘the voice of the spheres’). Tapping into the old idea that ether conveyed sound, 
Mager demonstrated the Sphaerophon in 1926 at Donaueschingen to con- 



28 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


siderable interest. Sound was generated using feedback and controlled with a 
complicated dial and lever system. 

In 1927 came Mager’s Kaleidophon, a keyboard device which could be tuned 
at will, was touch sensitive and capable of changes in timbre and vibrato. 
Though no examples survive, Mager was obviously a genius, years ahead of his 
time. A successful demonstration at Frankfurt led to the offer of a castle at 
Darmstadt where he could develop his instrument, and here he founded the 
Electro-Acoustic Music Society in 1929. He continued to refine the Sphaero- 
phon, which, with the addition of two small keyboards and a pedal board, had 
by this time become the Klaviatursphaerophon. 

Mager’s research resulted in the Partiturophon in 1930—1, a multi-voiced 
five-keyboard device with pedal board and extras, which could play scored 
music. He made it produce thunder sounds for performances of Wagner’s 
operatic Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1931 and the following year he provided 
microtonal music for thirty performances of Goethe’s Faust. Mager’s fame was 
in the ascendant as offers of concerts and film-score commissions flooded in. But 
when Hitler came to power in 1933 his work was doomed. Considered a 
decadent artist, he eventually lost his castle and died in isolation in 1939. The 
war destroyed all his ingenious inventions yet he is remembered precisely for his 
visionary courage. Mager wanted the Partiturophon to be available in every 
home and dreamed of an Omnitonium, an instrument that could play every 
possible sound in any tuning. Only today is that possible, so far ahead of its time 
was Mager’s imagination. 


FRIEDRICH TRAUTWEIN AND OSKAR SALA 

The Trautonium, invented in Berlin in 1930, is still considered today one of the 
most versatile and interesting of the early electronic instruments. The fact that it 
could produce sounds far more complex than the piano meant that a wide 
variety of applications were found for it. From producing the manifold back- 
ground shrieks and screeches in Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963) to its 
adoption by the German Ambient guru Pete Namlook in the 1990s, the 
Trautonium has played a key role in the development of electronic and 
atmospheric music. 

The instrument was developed not only by its originator, Friedrich Traut- 
wein, but also by the composer Paul Hindemith and the inventor and musician 
Oskar Sala. Firstly, Trautwein, who was born in 1888. An electrical engineer, a 
lawyer, a doctor of physics and Professor of Musical Acoustics at the Berlin 
Academy of Music, he was interested in expanding electronic sound and 
developing an instrument with more harmonic possibilities than the Theremin. 
To this end he worked with the composer Hindemith at Berlin’s Experimental 
Radio Centre and by 1930 had produced the Trautonium. 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


29 


Early versions sound fascinating. Radio-tube fluctuations produced electro- 
nic pulses which were amplified through a speaker. A pulsating neon light, with 
the help of a number of dials, controlled tone. A taught wire stretched across a 
strip of metal akin to a guitar fretboard produced notes when held against it, but 
electronically in that a circuit was completed. The volume of this monophonic 
device was controlled by a pedal, its three-octave range altered by means of a 
switch. Hindemith, who in the 1920s had campaigned for ‘Everyday Music’ and 
more presciently ‘House Music’, in the spirit of Satie, saw the Trautonium as a 
great step forward. He wrote a Trautonium Trio in 1930 and a celebrated Concerto 
For Trautonium And Strings in 1931. 

Trautwein wrote a manual for his invention in 1936 and after the Second 
World War developed an amplified harpsichord and electronic bells. He 
established a school for recording engineers which became part of the Schu- 
mann Conservatory in the 1950s. Trautwein died in 1956, having done much 
to spread the teaching and knowledge of electronic music through papers, 
lectures and numerous articles in magazines. He was particularly interested in 
‘listening’ and how sound is identified and understood. 

The Trautonium was enhanced by his pupil Oskar Sala. Born in 1910 in 
Thuringia, Sala was a brilliant composition student at the Berlin Academy, 
where he met Trautwein. At nineteen Sala became a virtuoso on the instru- 
ment, performing Hindemith’s pieces in concert. After the latter left Germany 
(to live in Turkey, then the UK and finally the US) Trautwein saw the potential 
in Sala’s ideas and supported him. By 1935 Sala had come up with the Radio 
Trautonium, with two wire and metal boards controlled by metal tongues and 
an array of knobs and levers. It looked for all the world like some weird organ. A 
concert version, independent of radio technology, was also produced and used. 
Between 1949 and 1952 Sala discovered circuitry that could enormously 
expand the tonal ability of the Radio Trautonium and produce subharmonic 
rows and chords. By being able to play the tones between the notes on a piano, 
the new Mixturtrautonium could get nearer to natural and unnatural sounds. 
The instrument was patented in the US, Germany and France, and subsequently 
further generators were added. 

In 1958 Sala set up his own studio and by the 1960s he also had a workshop 
for producing independent film music. His most famous score was for Hitch- 
cock’s The Birds, among 300 other films. Sala composed many pieces for the 
Trautonium, including Electronic Impression (1987) and Fantasy For Mixturtrau- 
tonium (1988). In that year three professors at a Berlin postal college refined a 
micro-electronic version of the instmment. 

Sala has been neglected, probably because he stayed in Germany throughout 
Hitler’s Third Reich. But the beauty of his refinements to Trautwein’s original 
invention cannot be denied. He lent it great variety of pitch and tone colour as 
well as spring-based pressure-sensitive liquid resistors which give the player a 
real hands-on feel. Between 1990 and 1995 the Frankfurt Ambient Techno star 
Pete Namlook recognized Sala’s contribution by remastering an entire CD of 



30 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Trautonium music played by Sala tided My Fascinating Instrument (Fax). At the 
time Namlook was outspoken about the brilliance of the Trautonium: ‘I did a 
lot of programming work on it, producing subharmonic chords. Compared to 
today’s synthesizers it has the best interface for monophonic sounds. You can 
create every tone, and with direct attack and tremolo, with a move of the finger. 
It is strange that modem synthesizer companies, still thinking of the piano and 
the even-tempered scale, cannot even compete with technology of the 30s. 
With Sala and the Trautonium you get the intensity which only a musician 
playing with his hands, feet and whole body can produce.’ Sala died in Berlin in 
early 2002 aged ninety-one having bequeathed the fmits of his vigorously active 
life to the German Museum in Munich. 


ARNOLD SCHOENBERG 

At first there may seem to be no connection between Schoenberg and Ambient 
and electronic music. Why should someone who wrote difficult, almost un- 
listenable atonal and ‘Serial’ works have anything to do with velvety, atmospheric 
Ambience? Well, taught by Mahler and himself the chief mentor to John Cage, 
Schoenberg was responsible for taking German Romanticism and breaking it in 
two. By abandoning tonality and eventually the entire system of harmony which 
had reigned for 300 years he caused a revolution which echoed down through the 
twentieth century and was singular in shaping Stockhausen’s electronic inven- 
tions. Moreover, as noted by the German social philosopher and musicologist 
Theodor Adomo, Schoenberg’s objective rigour led to a music and system which 
could rely on itself; and it was in this way that it opened up the creative space for 
Minimalism and the Ambience which followed it. 

Schoenberg, born in 1874, was a mostly self-taught Viennese shoemaker’s son 
who started on violin when eight but in his teens left composition lessons for a 
bank job. Further lessons never deflected him from his famous maxim: ‘Genius 
learns only from itself, talent chiefly from others.’ His early brooding music caused 
scandals in Vienna yet two pieces which surfaced in 1902, Verklarte Nacht 
(' Transfigured Night) and Pelleas und Melisande (also the subject of an opera by 
Debussy) have all the flavour of Romantic longing. After marriage and a stint in a 
Berlin theatre he returned to Vienna and a poverty-stricken life of teaching and 
painting. Mahler helped him with his music and saw Schoenberg move towards 
extreme musical unrest or dissonance, causing howls of indignation along the 
way. In 1908, during a marriage crisis, he dispensed with tonal structures in favour 
of a free atonality. The string quartets he wrote in this style caused riots. 

After Mahler’s death Schoenberg became famous for a new type of spoken 
music theatre with Pierrot Lunaire (1912). During the First World War he was 
stationed in Vienna and formed the Society for Private Music. Over eight years 
he wrote no music but invented Serialism — a new compositional method which 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


31 


used all twelve tones of the octave which, individually, could be written once as 
part of the row or series. Tone rows could be transformed in mirrored or 
inverted form. This rigorous system had precedents in baroque and classical 
music, particularly Bach’s Fugues , but in Schoenberg’s hands it led to the 
abandonment of recognizable melodies. This technique allowed him to blue- 
print emotional methods of creating film music, as was evidenced in the 1930 
Accompaniment To A Film Score. 

Having lost his wife in the 1920s, Schoenberg remarried and was settling 
down to a good professorship at the Berlin Academy when the Nazis came to 
power. As usual he flew in the face of conservatism, emphasized his Jewish 
heritage and fled to the US, where he taught at the University of California in 
Los Angeles. Though he hated the commercialization of Hollywood, he met 
producer Irving Thalberg in 1935 to discuss the scoring of the MGM film The 
Good Earth. The composer disliked Thalberg’s musical ignorance and de- 
manded a huge fee of $50,000 plus complete control over actors and the 
musical score. Unsurprisingly, the deal fell through. Schoenberg was un- 
wavering in his adherence to his inventions. He once said ‘The laws of nature 
manifested in a man of genius are but the laws of the future.’ After problems 
with his heart he died in 1951 at the age of seventy-six, having rewritten the 
history of music. 

LISTENING 

Schoenberg is more famous for his ideas than for the music itself. Tunes and 
melodies were always subservient to form and concept. Verklarte Nacht ( Trans- 
figured Night) (1902), a poetic string sextet, is considered erotic. The atonalities 
of his String Quartet No. 2 (1908) have been described as eerie while the sound- 
colour section ‘Summer Morning By A Lake’ from 1909’s Five Orchestral Pieces is 
regarded as a high point of tranquil music. Yet the best introduction to his 
sound-world is the post-Romanticism of Pelleas und Melisande (1902), where, 
during a single movement lasting nearly fifty minutes, Schoenberg’s restless, 
endlessly shifting writing takes on a strange Ambient character. Recommended 
is the recording by Christopher Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony 
Orchestra (Koch 1995). 


ALBAN BERG AND ANTON WEBERN 

Of the dozens of pupils who surrounded Arnold Schoenberg in the Vienna of 
the early twentieth century it was Alban Berg and Anton Webern who became 
famous. In fact the trio made up the so-called Second Viennese School, whose 
visionary commitment to the revolutionary twelve-tone system was seen as 
important as that of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (the First Viennese School) 



32 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


to classical music more than a century earlier. Both composers are important to 
the development of electronic and Ambient music in their refinement and 
development of Schoenbergian technique. 

Berg, born in 1885, was a typical Viennese bourgeois who swung between 
shy introspection and intense sensuality. His life was littered with affairs. In 
1904, when he met Schoenberg, the nineteen-year-old Berg swore lifelong 
musical fidelity. He formally studied with the older composer for six years and 
wrote about and propagated Schoenberg’s theories up to his death. Berg’s music 
incorporated classical structures, Romantic melodic fragments from Mahler and 
Wagner, folk tunes and suchlike. He suffered from bad asthma and depression 
and was obsessively interested in numerology. Though he was famous for 
applying austere atonality and twelve-tone ideas to opera (Wozzeck, 1921), his 
instrumental works such as the Lyric Suite (1925—6) and his Violin Concerto (1935) 
contain aspects of incredible beauty and quietude. Berg died in 1935, at the age 
of fifty, from an infected insect bite, his mentor in exile in the US, his own 
music decried as decadent by the rising Nazi regime. Yet in his ability to make 
Schoenberg’s ideas flow and float, Berg made the forbidding twelve-tone 
system accessible. 

In contrast to Berg, his fellow- Austrian Anton Webern, bom two years 
earlier in 1883, was fiercely academic. He reduced Schoenberg’s ideas to such 
economy that most of his music could fit on two compact discs! One famous 
work, his Symphony (1928), lasts for only ten minutes, its score taking up only a 
couple of pages. While at Vienna University Webern began studying, at the age 
of twenty-one, with Schoenberg and spent seven years in the most intense 
exploration of the new musical ideas. Passacaglia (1908) would be his longest 
piece, at eighteen minutes, and sounded like compacted Mahler. The following 
year’s Five Movements For String Quartet laid out his style — concise with extreme 
contrasts between the climactic and brooding near silence. In between con- 
ducting jobs he fiercely supported Schoenberg, helping mn his Society for 
Private Music from 1918. 

After the First World War he settled in suburban Vienna, worked as a 
conductor and from 1923 refined and analysed the twelve-tone process into 
near invisibility. Schoenberg was to comment on his technique: ‘Every glance is 
a poem, every sigh is a novel.’ Webern developed Schoenberg’s ‘tone-colour 
melody’ ideal to an extreme where each tone was played by a different 
instmment. In his world sound became the most desirable thing, with every- 
thing else - pitch, timbre, rhythm - being subsumed to the Serial technique. 
Even silence was strictly measurable. He remained in an Austria under Nazi 
occupation, his family having tenuous links with the party but his music banned 
as ‘cultural bolshevism’. He worked as a proofreader but retreated to his 
daughter’s house near Salzburg during the Allied bombings of 1945. There 
he was accidentally shot dead by an American sentry after lighting a cigar on his 
porch during curfew. In post-war music Webern’s total Serialism technique was 
to have a profound influence on the course of electronic music for it mapped 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


33 


out a concrete direction for the ground-breaking innovations of Karlheinz 
Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. 


LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI 

The conductor who stands out most as a musical thinker, Leopold Stokowski 
was unique in the way he used the musical establishment to champion 
completely new ideas in sound deployment, electronic music and Ambience. 
The first to champion novel electrical instmments in the concert hall and the 
first to seize on the recorded medium and become a star, Stokowski was first and 
foremost a radical who turned every opportunity into a moment of confronta- 
tion. 

Coming from Irish and Polish parentage in London certainly helped shape his 
unconventional vision. Bom in 1882, he was the youngest-ever entrant, at 
thirteen, to the Royal College of Music, where his gift for violin and keyboards 
led to a fellowship at eighteen in composition, organ music and theory. By the 
age of twenty-one he had also gained a degree from Oxford and up to 1908 he 
played the organ at churches in London and New York as well as pursuing 
additional studies in Munich, Paris and Berlin. He preferred to turn his 
remarkable abilities outward rather than pursue an academic career and readily 
accepted US citizenship in 1915, three years after being appointed conductor of 
the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

His leadership there between 1912 and 1936 profoundly affected American 
music in all sorts of ways. In 1917 he became the first conducting and recording 
star, having signed to what would become the RCA Victor label. Stokowski 
well understood that sound in the broadest sense was the way forward in the 
twentieth century and that old ways of confining music or limiting its appeal had 
to be ditched if progress was to be made. He shocked audiences by championing 
the new over the old. His support of Varese’s disquietening sonic blast Ameriques 
in 1926 caused a storm. When the four-octave Theremin arrived in 1929 
Stokowski wrote the classic lines: ‘Soon we shall have entirely new methods of 
tone production by electrical means. Thus will begin a new era in music.’ He 
used the instmment’s strangely pitched sounds to enhance orchestral tone. 

Having ditched the conductor’s baton for a new expressivity using his hands, 
Stokowski then experimented with orchestral design, changing things around to 
enliven sound — an innovation which would inspire Stockhausen. He would go 
on to champion the likes of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, verbally attacking 
the audience if they refused the new music a chance to breathe. In 1932, at a 
meeting of the Acoustical Society in the US, he set out his stall in no uncertain 
terms. New forms of communication like radio and records were paramount. 
The synthesis of sounds in electronic music was the way forward. ‘Musical 
notation cannot by any means express all the possibilities of sound. In time the 



34 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


musician will create directly into Tone, not on paper. Any frequency, any 
duration, any intensity or combinations of harmony or rhythm.’ 

This call for a pure electronic music would shape much of the twentieth 
century’s musical search. The lush, deep tone of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 
the concert hall, coupled with its recorded legacy, radically changed the public’s 
attitudes to records and neglected music. Stokowski championed Mahler in 
new, luminous versions and his extensive research into acoustics and electronics 
improved studio sound quality in the US, Germany and Holland. 

Thrice married (the last time to heiress Gloria Vanderbilt in 1945), Stokowski 
led various American orchestras up to 1972. He certainly influenced how the 
American public considered such mavericks as Charles Ives, and the tall, 
charismatic figure, with his interest in Asian music, his penchant for changing 
a score if it suited him, his ability to conduct from memory alone, his interest in 
music and film innovation and, above all, his dedication to new sounds, became 
a crucial bridge between the classical world and the modem. Still dreaming 
about conducting some new music on his hundredth birthday, he died quietly 
in Hampshire, England in 1977, five years short of his century. 


EDGARD VARESE 

Beloved of musicians as diverse as Frank Zappa and Stockhausen, Edgard Varese 
was one of the twentieth century’s great mavericks. In his search for a music of 
‘beautiful parabolic and hyperbolic curves’ Varese, as early as 1916, was 
demanding ‘new instmments and new technical means’ through which to 
realize ‘the organized sounds’ of his imagination. He felt that composers and 
musicians should be able to satisfy every dictate of musical thought and believed 
that ‘electronics could free music’. His life would be a search and a realization of 
this ideal. 

Of Franco-Italian parentage, Varese was bom in Paris in 1883 but moved to 
Turin with his family while young. He studied harmony and had penned an 
opera by the age of eleven, but a talent for maths and science led him to study 
those subjects at Turin University. After returning to Paris in the early 1900s 
Varese studied at the Schola Cantorum and the Conservatoire. It was not long 
before this bright young man attracted the interest of Debussy and Satie and 
their milieu, which included the poet Apollinaire and the writer Jean Cocteau. 
Yet Varese was more interested in the radical ideas of Fermccio Busoni after 
reading the latter’s 1907 paper ‘Sketch For A New Aesthetic Of Music’ and 
went to Berlin in 1909 to meet the man. There he was stimulated by the Italian’s 
theories of ‘free music’ and the possibility of musical tones beyond the normal 
scale (microtonality). 

Working as a conductor, Varese divided his time between Berlin and Paris. In 
1913 he met the inventor Rene Bertrand but the following year he was 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


35 


conscripted into the French Army. His war service was short and after being 
discharged on grounds of illness he emigrated to the US. His arrival in New 
York in December 1915 had the aura of an evangelist coming to transform the 
New World. He immediately organized an Orchestra for New Music but there 
were no audiences. He pleaded in the New York Telegraph for ‘new technical 
means’ and by 1921 had set up the International Composers’ Guild for the 
dissemination of new sounds. Over six years dozens of works from all over the 
world were performed for the first time, including those of the Second Viennese 
School. 

In Varese’s mind sounds that had been heard were old hat. He wrote in an 
American journal in 1922 that ‘speed and synthesis are characteristics of our own 
epoch’. But since equipment didn’t exist to create the new sounds he reasoned 
he had to invent new sonorities with existing instruments. His flow of 
compositions through the 1920s and 30s confused many, but Varese found 
a w illi ng ally in the conductor Leopold Stokowski. Works like Ameriques 
(1921), Hyperprism (1923), Integrates (1924) and Ionisation (1931) were all takes 
on the urban landscape, using percussion and strange instrumental combinations 
to convey, through ‘beams of sound’, a ‘music of the fourth dimension’. Varese’s 
use of sound blocks and extreme rhythmic changes made his music a challenge 
and often caused uproar in audiences. Only the short four-minute Density 21.5 
for flute could be said to have Ambient properties. 

Of more interest was his direct involvement in electronics. In the late 1920s 
he approached Bell Telephone for the use of a laboratory to research into 
possible instruments but no funds were available. In 1927 his friend Bertrand 
had invented the Dynaphone, a dial-operated monophonic oscillation device 
like the Theremin, and this was showcased in several European cities. The 
following year Varese returned to Paris in order to build a studio to develop 
the instrument and other ideas. Interestingly, he wrote that the studio 
contained a complete record collection of ‘all races, all cultures’, so the 
world’s music might have been available for electronic sampling. But in the 
1930s Western electronic engineers, although sympathetic to Varese’s aims, 
were unable to find the finances. His 1933 application to the Guggenheim 
Foundation for a grant to research into new scales and frequency ranges with 
the improved Dynaphone was similarly rebuffed. Frustrated, he experimented 
by playing records backwards, predating later musical trends by over half a 
century. 

In 1934 Varese came up with Ecuatorial, a twelve-minute piece for voices, 
instrumental ensemble and two Theremins. This Mayan-inspired piece later 
used two Ondes Martenots to convey the gleaming haze of the ancient Central 
American civilization. Varese continued to experiment with the idea of ‘new 
harmonic splendours’ and the possibilities inherent in ‘sound projection’ at his 
home in New York. One project began in 1935 but never realized was Space - 
an extremely ambitious global musical link-up in which music would be relayed 
from every capital city via radio. Given the economic climate of the times, it’s 



36 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


no surprise that there was little support for the idea, which was nevertheless fifty 
years ahead of Live Aid. 

After the Second World War Varese lectured at the new summer school in 
Darmstadt, a hotbed of new musical ideas. He received the gift of a tape 
recorder in 1953 and used it to build up a library of sounds. Around this time he 
received an appreciative visit from the French avant-gardist Pierre Boulez. In 
1954 came Deserts , a work based on the far-flung open spaces of America and 
the inner spiritual emptiness of twentieth-century life. In three parts, the piece 
compounds orchestral passages with taped factory sounds, ship sirens, motors. 
Finished in Pierre Schaeffer’s Paris studio, the work used found sounds, or 
musique concrete , in a novel way. Its debut in the Champs-Elysees in 1954 caused 
outrage. Yet it was the first piece of its kind to be broadcast on French Radio 
and the first to be put out in stereo. Later that year Stockhausen was proud to be 
involved in a live concert of Deserts in Hamburg. Varese would spend seven 
years refining the piece. A planned cinematic accompaniment was never 
realized but Varese did finally perfect Deserts in 1961 at Otto Luening’s 
Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York. 

Varese’s finest achievement was his Poeme electronique for the Philips pavilion 
at the Brussels World Fair of 1958. The futuristic pavilion was co-designed by 
Le Corbusier and the architect-composer Iannis Xenakis and has become a 
strident historical symbol of post-war modernism. Invited to Eindhoven by 
Philips, Varese was provided with a special sound laboratory with the latest 
equipment and the finest engineers available. There he realized a piece for 
eleven-channel tape which was relayed through 425 speakers. Sound projection 
was organized so that the chorus of bells, piano, organs, pulse-generated dmms, 
continuous rhythm and an electronically treated girl’s voice could be heard from 
any angle. Through the use of tape looping, the eight-minute piece could be 
heard continuously but it was strangely different each time the sequence 
repeated. This effect was enhanced by an array of coloured lights which 
projected images in synchronization with the music. In a flash of creative 
genius, Varese had invented environmental Ambience. It’s estimated that two 
million people had experienced Poeme electronique by the end of 1958. 

That year Stockhausen met Varese in New York and declared him ‘the father 
figure of electronic music’. By demanding ‘twentieth-century instruments for 
twentieth-century music’, Varese was practically applying Debussy’s dream of a 
new music. In his writings Varese precisely predicted the rise of synthesizers and 
the role of sampling equipment in creating new sounds. His tragedy was that he 
was too far ahead of his time, without the tools or the finance to realize his 
dreams. His legacy is more to other musicians than to listeners. What is striking is 
that his ideas for light and colour projection, his use of records and the sound 
environment of Poeme electronique were a blueprint for Ambient Techno Music 
of the 1990s. On the death of this pioneer in 1965, Stockhausen affirmed both 
his artistic and human greatness. 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


37 


LISTENING 

Selections of Varese’s music appears on discs from Sony, Decca and Erato 
featuring interpretations by Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta and Kent Nagano 
respectively. Boulez, who made a name for himself conducting Varese with 
the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s, is heard doing a fine version of Density 
21.5 on the Sony disc from 1990. Kent Nagano, with the National Orchestra of 
France, conducts two volumes of Varese (Vol. 1: 1920-1927, Vol. 2: 1925-1958) 
on Erato (1993, 1996). He is a smooth translator of the composer’s intentions and 
the second disc contains fine versions of Ecuatorial , Deserts and the unfinished 
Nocturnal from 1961 . You can hear the incredible Poeme electronique on the superb 
CD collection OHM: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music (Ellipsis Arts 2000). 


PERCY GRAINGER 

The memory of the idiosyncratic Australian pianist Percy Grainger is tinged 
with contrasting views. Some say he wished for the widest communication 
between peoples, their music and ideals. Others have accused him of racial 
purity in his obsession with Nordic mythology and Scandinavia. What isn’t in 
dispute is his early interest in Ambient music and his willingness to experiment 
with electronics. 

Bom in Melbourne in 1882, he was giving concerts at the age of ten and at 
thirteen entered the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where he excelled in 
piano and composition. He settled in London in 1901 and immediately began to 
experiment with alternating metres and free rhythms in Train Music. Inspired by 
the sounds of flowing water, he had already written the Ambient Bush Music in 
1900. A 1903 study period in Berlin with the ultra-radical Busoni strengthened 
his avantism. In 1907 he wrote the orchestral Sea Song Sketch , which incorpo- 
rated the sound of lapping waves. 

He also became a famous world-touring pianist, admired by Grieg and 
Delius. In 1906 Grainger had endorsed the wax cylinder as a principal device for 
collecting disappearing folk songs and by 1910 he had recorded some 500 from 
all over the British Isles. In 1914 he went to the US and, like Ives, played in 
army marching bands. He became an American citizen in 1918. In the 1920s he 
collected hundreds of Danish folk tunes and in 1928 married his Nordic 
princess, the Swedish artist and poet Ella Storm in an over-the-top ceremony 
at the Hollywood Bowl. 

During the 1930s Grainger divided his time between experiments with ‘Free 
Music’ — a music without recourse to traditional notation, pattern or symmetry 
— and his ethnomusicological museum in Melbourne. Already embodied in the 
form of a 1907 string quartet, his Free Music principles were applied in 1935-6 
to music for arrays of Theremins, the score consisting of a mass of curves and 



38 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


zigzags. Despite having raised money to aid his adoptive country during the 
Second World War, Grainger died in isolation in New York in 1961. Even his 
wish to have his skeleton exhumed and displayed at his Melbourne museum was 
ignored. Only recently has reappraisal begun of his contribution to experimental 
music. In his 400 or so works (many of them attributed folk settings) Grainger 
certainly had an ear for sounds way beyond the confines of tradition, and 
composed pieces for nonsense syllables, improvised ensembles, guitars, mallet 
instruments, bells and glasses. He also wrote articles supporting his musical 
experiments, for he understood that electronics, both in recording and dis- 
semination, were the future. 


OLIVIER MESSIAEN 

Influenced by Satie and Debussy, Olivier Messiaen became the pivotal French 
composer of the century through a process of osmosis. By absorbing a variety of 
musics — ancient Greek, the gamelan of Indonesia, Hindu chant, medieval 
plainsong, Aztec and Inca pipe music and the music of Japan — and applying 
these to the work of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, Messiaen broke through 
into public consciousness with a new dreamlike style that affected everybody 
who heard it. Seizing on such instruments as the Ondes Martenot, Messiaen 
became a beacon for electronic iconoclasts such as Stockhausen, Boulez and 
Xenakis, all of whom he taught. By pushing Western scales and notation 
beyond the instrumental into the realm of natural birdsong he laid the 
groundwork for environmental Ambience. His concentration in 1950 on 
the importance of the elements of a single musical note is said to have shaped 
the century of sound. 

The son of literary parents, Messiaen was born in Avignon in 1908. Brought 
up a strict Catholic, he taught himself the piano and was writing his first 
compositions at the age of seven. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at eleven 
and stayed there for over a decade, studying everything and winning all the 
academic competitions. Privately he worked on Eastern scales and rhythms. A 
series of Preludes, from as early as 1929, took what Debussy and the group Les 
Six (followers of Satie) had done and placed it in the context of new modes. 
These were short symmetrical note selections adapted from the twelve notes of 
the chromatic scale which gave his music a rich, shimmering quality. 

A virtuoso of the organ, Messiaen was appointed organist of the Trinity 
Church, Paris in 1931 — a post he held for over five decades. This church would 
also be his postal address until his death. He married a violinist, Claire Delbos, in 
1932 and by 1936 he was teaching at both the Schola Cantorum and Ecole 
Normale de Musique, at the latter as a professor. More important was his 
founding of ‘Young France’ the same year, a loose group passionately com- 
mitted to fostering new French music. Very much in that spirit was Messiaen’s 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


39 


embracing of the electro-acoustic instrument the Ondes Martenot. His Fetes des 
belles eaux ( Feasts Of The Beautiful Waters) (1937) was written for six Ondes 
Martenots and showed spirited commitment towards the idea of electronic 
music. The hazy quality of the Ondes Martenot appealed to Messiaen and was 
what he was looking for outside Western music. Two Odes In Quarter Tones 
(1938) refined the experiment and the Ondes Martenot would fruitfully crop up 
in later works. 

The coming of the Second World War saw Messiaen conscripted to the 
medical corps but he was captured by the Nazis and interned at a camp at Gorlitz 
on the Polish border. Driven on by hunger and cold, he wrote music to suit 
what he envisioned as ‘the end of time’. Pulled along by his faith, he saw things 
in terms of angels at the moment of the apocalypse, swords of fire, superhuman 
colours and bursts of stars. Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet For The End Of 
Time), written to save his life and the lives of three other French musicians, was 
first performed in front of 5,000 prisoners in 1941 and instantly became a 
twentieth-century classic. Fluttering clarinet and ethereal, open-ended piano 
tones made the forty-five-minute piece float along in a manner not previously 
heard. In truth it had as much to do with Indian music as it did with the Western 
tradition. In Messiaen’s imagination it was designed to bring the listener closer 
to space, to the infinite. Hence it is one of the great Ambient pieces of the last 
century. 

Luckily Messiaen was out of the camp by 1942 and back in Paris. He was 
quickly appointed a professor at the Conservatoire and taught there diligently 
until 1978. In 1944 he laid out his musical means, in particular the use of archaic 
eight-note scales, in the publication Techniques Of My Musical Language. He then 
fell in love with the violinist Yvonne Loriod, although since he was bound by 
Catholic marriage vows, he poured this new-found sensuality into his music. He 
still wrote for the Ondes Martenot and after a trip to the US conceived the 
powerful Turangalila-symphonie ( Turangalila Symphony) (1946—8), the title of 
which comes from the ancient Indian Sanskrit and means life-cycle symphony’. 
In this work sprawling over ten movements, the continuous piano line, strange 
Varese-style block percussion and sparkling use of vibraphone, glockenspiel and 
Ondes Martenot made it sound quite unique. The very soft, very tender section 
‘The Garden Of Sleeping Love’ floats along, Messiaen finding such a delicacy of 
balance between piano and Ondes Martenot that the piece easily transcends its 
initial Hollywood-style character. He is certainly the master musician of 
Martenot’s instrument. 

During the late 1940s Messiaen’s analysis classes at the Paris Conservatoire 
became legendary. He was beginning to absorb more and more music, looking 
simultaneously back in history and beyond mere music into other realms of 
sound. Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen and the revolutionary Irish composer Sean 
O’Pdada were all attracted to his expansive teaching style. For a long time 
Messiaen had been thinking about the relationship between numbers, colours 
and music and was wholly interested in ‘synaesthetic’ vision, the kind of sensory 



40 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


confusion which occurs naturally in a tiny number of people but is more often 
brought about by hallucinogenic dmgs. The idea of hearing smells and tasting 
sounds would, of course, become a major reality for musicians of the psychedelic 
era and here again Messiaen was decades ahead of his time. In 1949 he composed 
Modes de valeurs et d’intensites (. Modes Of Values And Intensities ), which he unveiled 
at Darmstadt that year. This piano piece, made up of rhythmic cells, concentrated 
on the individual note, giving particular prominence to its length, loudness, tone 
colour and pitch. The single sound was the idea of total Serialism, where 
everything that could be notated was introduced, and in 1951 Stockhausen was 
inspired to write Kreuzspiel ( Crossplay ), which introduced his mature style. 

Messiaen set to work at the studios of ORTF (Radio France) with his pupil 
Pierre Henry on a concrete-music piece titled Timbres -durees ( Sound Durations). 
Yet he was dissatisfied with the state of electronic music and wanted more 
flexibility and expansiveness. For this he turned to birdsong and travelled mral 
France transposing and listening. His Catalogue d’oiseaux ( Catalogue Of Birds) 
(1956-8) was thirteen piano pieces which ingeniously utilized Greek and Indian 
rhythms in tandem with exotic bird cries. His first wife died in 1959 and he 
married Yvonne Loriod in 1962, the same year he visited Japan. Inspired by his 
visit, he wrote 7 Haikai for piano and orchestra based on the ancient Japanese 
poem form. 

By now laden with academic honours, Messiaen again visited the US and 
came back filled with inspired visions of the Rocky Mountains in Utah. Written 
between 1971 and 1974 and over one and a half hours long, Des canyons aux 
etoiles ( From The Canyons To The Stars) is a huge, sprawling work for a forty- 
musician triple ensemble. Here the sounds of Africa, Asia, Java and Bali are offset 
by the twinkling electronic sounds of vibraphone and Ondes Martenot. The 
sparkling effect, like glinting stars on a clear light, a glowing, shifting and 
uncertain musical landscape, are definitive Messiaen. This fragmentary work is a 
journey in sound - through the desert, hearing the golden-yellow oriole birds, 
through Bryce Canyon and upwards to the morning star of Aldebaran and the 
song of the woodthrush. 

The next decade would be spent writing devotional music. The opera St 
Francis Of Assisi, written between 1975 and 1983, was full of static sound. 
Messiaen also spent much time composing organ works. In 1984 he visited Israel 
and annotated several species of rare birdsong. Two years later he received 
France’s Legion of Honour. Though known as a mystic with a huge and 
imaginative love of God, Messiaen had a robust faith which allowed him to 
experiment in areas where many would be merely cautious. His encouragement 
of Boulez and Stockhausen helped to shape twentieth-century electronic music 
while his own sweet, shimmering sound gave the best form for successive 
developments in Ambient music. His individuality and lack of a Schoenbergian 
ego probably diminished his popular appeal, but his spirited innovations and 
embracing of new instruments and cultures influenced many. His death in 1992 
was mourned by a nation to which he had given so much. 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


41 


LISTENING 

Quatuor pour la fin du temps ( Quartet For The End Of Time) (Delos 1987) is a richly 
satisfying disc featuring Chamber Music Northwest. The Turangalila-symphonie 
(Turangalila Symphony) and Des canyons aux etoiles ( From The Canyons To The 
Stars) are available on two double-disc sets: the first (Sony 1986) with Esa-Pekka 
Salonen conducting and Paul Crossley (piano), the second (Auvidis 1994) with 
the great Satie interpreter Reinbert De Leeuw conducting various ensembles. 
The latter interestingly replaces the original mix of vibraphone and Ondes 
Martenot with wind and sand machines. These are long pieces, but suitable 
excerpts are available on Sony’s excellent 1993 compilation To The Edge Of 
Dream. 


PAUL BOWLES 

The influence of the American author and composer Paul Bowles on Ambient 
music has only recently been acknowledged as musicians like Bill Laswell and 
Nicky Skopelitis sculpt resonantly atmospheric soundscapes to Bowles’s chilling 
tales of the Sahara. This only son of a New York suburban dentist fled the cruelty of 
his father at the end of the 1920s with only $24 in his pocket. After arriving in Paris 
he was to meet Jean Cocteau and the artist Joan Miro. He had started piano lessons 
as early as five and now studied with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger. An early 
ambition to be a poet was crushed by the American writer Gertrude Stein. 

During the 1930s and 40s, while Bowles was being supported and tutored by 
the composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thompson, he wrote light, feathery, 
burlesque-influenced pieces. This work comprises fourteen compositions for 
piano and orchestra, three operas, four ballets, twelve film scores and various 
pieces for voice and Broadway. It is said that his best work was music for a 1950s 
production of Tennessee Williams’s play Sweet Bird Of Youth , starring Paul 
Newman. Bowles’s worldwide best-selling novel The Sheltering Sky brought 
him out of conventionality and into the world of innovative literature. Exiled in 
Tangier, he became a magnet for Beat poets and writers like William Bur- 
roughs, free-jazz explorers like Ornette Coleman, The Rolling Stones, Brion 
Gysin and the aforementioned Laswell. 

Bowles’s grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1959 led to 25,000 miles 
of travel and it was he who set up recordings of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, 
in Morocco, for both Brian Jones and Ornette Coleman, thus allowing true 
ethnic music to filter into Western consciousness. Of his own music, the Six 
Preludes For Piano (1945) marks his zenith, capturing all the delicacy of musical 
Impressionism while being suffused with much of the melancholy of his prose. 
His death in the Italian Hospital, Tangier, in late 1999 (aged eighty-eight) from 
a heart attack, attracted copious eulogies from around the world. 



42 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


LISTENING 

Black Star At The Point Of Darkness (Psalmody Sub Rosa 1991) features Bowles’s 
own recordings of Moroccan music, some stories and an exemplary rendition of 
the Six Preludes For Piano by Jean-Luc Fafchamps. An American In Paris (Koch 
1995) is a live Radio France production of various songs, piano pieces and 
concerto and is better for the sleeve notes than the music. Baptism Of Solitude 
(Meta 1995) is where Bowles’s drained prose and oblique look at North African 
life meets 1990s electro nica in a perfect Ambient symbiosis. 


PIERRE SCHAEFFER AND PIERRE HENRY 

Two of the first people to experiment successfully with tape technology, 
Frenchmen Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry changed world perceptions at 
the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s with innovations in musique 
concrete, a style of composition which relied on compiling and editing existing 
sounds. Philosopher and essayist Schaeffer acknowledged that recorded sound 
would ‘upset music for ever’ and that music of the past was ‘abstract and 
symbolic’ while music of the future would be ‘concrete’. Working in the studio 
of Radio France’s Club d’Essai (Experimental Club), Schaeffer in particular 
would attract the attentions of many musicians keen to investigate the new idea, 
including Stockhausen, Varese and Boulez. Both directly and indirectly the 
French duo’s work would ripple through a half-century of Ambient music, 
sampling techniques of the 1990s being just one example of their fertile legacy. 

Schaeffer came from a musical background and was born in Nancy in 1910. 
Yet his interest was science. After attending a polytechnic he became a 
communications engineer in Strasbourg and in 1936 a technician at Radio- 
diffusion France. His interests in philosophy led him to the Armenian mystic 
Gurdjieff, while his wish to subvert drove him to create the Club d’Essai to 
explore electronic music in 1943. Schaeffer’s interest was in everyday sounds, 
whether produced by a train, a crowd or a tinkling piano, and the turning of 
them into ‘sound objects’. For this he had to turn to disc recordings and 
manipulate a panoply of turntables to get vari-speed movements or jump-cuts. 
Though commonplace in the Rap and Techno worlds of the late twentieth 
century, this technique was unheard of in 1948 when Schaeffer broadcast on 
Radio France his collection of five pieces known in English as Concert Of Noises. 
Notable among these was his edit of train sounds, the famous Etude aux chemins 
defer ( Railways Study). 

The time-consuming method of making experimental collages on disc from 
other discs would soon be forsaken for the new technology of tape, but not 
before Schaeffer made Symphonie pour un homme seul ( Symphony For A Man 
Alone), a twenty- two -minute piece made in conjunction with Pierre Henry, a 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


43 


young musician who had come to Radio France’s Paris studio from the 
Conservatoire in 1949. Using a variety of natural, musical and noise sources, 
the duo successfully conjured up sounds of the human body in twelve short 
movements. Premiered live in 1950, the work signalled the arrival of electronic 
music in France. 

The following year Schaeffer founded the Research Group for Concrete 
Music and would here investigate with Henry the possibilities of tape — what 
could be done with editing, multi-tracking, fading, backwards editing, tape 
loops and various echo and delay effects. Schaeffer was fascinated with the 
microphone, with what sounds, intentional or accidental, could be captured on 
tape. In 1952 he wrote a book called In Search Of Concrete Music , which outlined 
his aesthetic. 

Schaeffer’s interest in sound went beyond music. His interest was the 
systematic analysis of all sounds to build up a new understanding of how 
various art forms collide and meld into one. He was bored by Serial music and 
was infuriated when Boulez brought Stockhausen to his Paris studio in the early 
1950s and the young German spent much time breaking down a single sound 
rather than classifying the various sounds and noises Schaeffer had given him. 
Moreover Schaeffer wasn’t interested in making his own sounds whereas 
Stockhausen was. In 1958 Schaeffer broadened the Research Group’s inves- 
tigations to include many areas based on musical perceptions. Within two years 
he had set up a similar lab for visual research. Having lost interest in concrete 
music, he then turned his attention to science-fiction novels, though he was 
made a Professor of Electronic Music at the Paris Conservatoire in 1968. 

Meanwhile Pierre Henry voyaged deeper into the area. Henry, born in Paris 
in 1927, studied at the Conservatoire under Nadia Boulanger and Messiaen for 
ten years from the age of ten. Studying everything from birdsong to rhythm, he 
had an early interest in ‘noise’ and was a gifted drummer. From the early 1950s 
to 1958 he headed Schaeffer’s Research Group. One of his early disc recordings 
was called The Well-Tempered Microphone. He extensively analysed sounds and 
what occurred to them under tape manipulations. Vocalise (1952) is an im- 
pressive manipulation of the sound ‘ah’. He used prepared piano and created 
notation for concrete music. In addition to composing for the cinema and the 
stage, he created in 1958 his own electronic studio, where he merged both 
concrete and synthetic sound. 

During the 1960s Henry’s work became more complex: The Voyage for tape 
was nearly an hour long and based on the Tibetan Book Of The Dead. He wrote 
an electro-acoustic mass for Liverpool Cathedral in 1968 and a lengthy twelve- 
track tape piece, The Apocalypse Of Joan Of Arc, in the same year. Henry’s most 
bizarre project was Ceremony (1969), a mass written in collaboration with a 
progressive British rock group of the time, Spooky Tooth. In 1971 he 
experimented further with his Setting Of Music For Cortex Art, an audiovisual 
concept which transformed brainwaves into sound and light projections. Two 
years later he electronicized various Beethoven symphonies in The Tenth. 



44 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


The fundamental point about Schaeffer and Henry is that they brought 
electronic music to France and demonstrated the potential of the new tech- 
nology. Their legacy can clearly be seen in the work of Stockhausen and The 
Orb but such artists as Ireland’s Roger Doyle, who made convincing concrete- 
music records between the 1970s and the 1990s, and America’s Tortoise have 
pushed Schaeffer and Henry’s ideas into a new dimension. 


JOHN CAGE 

Through a constellation of musics John Cage became the guru of twentieth- 
century Ambient composition. Deriving inspiration from Erik Satie, Charles 
Ives and then Arnold Schoenberg, Cage did more than anybody else before him 
to isolate the quality of sound. In his quest for the ultimate sound he arrived at 
silence. In his mind there was no difference between noise, sound and silence - 
all were poetry to his ears. His presence throughout the twentieth century 
initiated much experiment in the fields of electronic music, mixed-media, total 
Serialism (where an attempt is made to measure everything in music) and 
environmental music. He was a beacon to talents as diverse as Pierre Boulez, 
Stockhausen, La Monte Young, David Tudor, The Velvet Underground, Brian 
Eno and many more. Above all he opened huge causeways for the dissemination 
of Ambient music. In 1989 he said: ‘People will often opt for quiet sounds. The 
awful presence of intention in music makes the non-intentional Ambient sound 
more useful. It is more possible to live affirmatively if you find environmental 
sound beautiful.’ 

Cage’s almost mythic fame has led many to believe that his aesthetic arrived 
in a flash of inspiration, fully formed. This was not the case. Born in Los 
Angeles in 1912, he was the son of an engineer and inventor. He took piano 
lessons in Santa Monica from an early age. A family friend, Fannie Dilon, later 
tutored him in the art of birdsong transcription. His first media appearance 
was a radio concert at the age of twelve and by fourteen he was obsessed with 
nineteenth-century piano styles, particularly that of Edward Grieg. The 
Norwegian composer had written a series of short Lyric Pieces for the 
instrument, some lasting minutes, others mere seconds, which greatly im- 
pressed Cage. At sixteen he graduated from high school in Los Angeles with 
the highest of grades and entered Pomona College, in his native California, to 
study for the priesthood. 

There he began to write poetry, though a yearning for travel led him to 
persuade his parents to send him to Europe, where he studied music and 
painting in Berlin and Paris. In the latter he worked for an architect and 
practised hard on piano, even studying Bach. Journeys around Italy and Spain 
ended in Cage experimenting with mathematical music but the American 
depression forced his return after eighteen months to help his parents. Back in 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


45 


California, he lectured and cooked for a living. Thereafter he went to New 
York to study composition and theory with Adolf Weiss. 

Back in California in 1933, Cage enrolled in the New School for Social 
Research run by Henry Cowell. Already inspired by Varese, Cage was to gain 
much from Cowell, a man whose book New Musical Resources (1919) Cage had 
read with enthusiasm. Cowell was a radical who supported Ives and who, from 
1912 to 1929, had experimented with the piano in terms of tone clusters and 
new tunings. He had also worked with the Theremin and was interested in 
extending Western music to embrace elements of Eastern and Far Eastern 
musics. Certainly Cage’s ideas for the ‘prepared piano’ came from here. In 1934 
Cage married Xenia, the daughter of an Alaskan orthodox priest; the same year 
he invented the water gong, an instrument to be used for underwater ballets! 
Yet for Cage his most significant experience of that year was meeting Arnold 
Schoenberg. 

From 1934 until 1937 Cage took music lessons with Schoenberg in 
California. Initially the Viennese inventor of Serialism said that his would- 
be pupil couldn’t afford his fees. The ever-charming Cage admitted that he had 
no money but pledged to devote his life to music, and Schoenberg took him on. 
Already writing in the serial style, Cage had great difficulty mastering harmony 
or chordal progression. Schoenberg felt that his student was beating his head 
against a brick wall. One day the composer sent Cage to the blackboard in order 
to answer a musical problem. When Cage found one, Schoenberg demanded 
another. When Cage answered this, Schoenberg demanded another, and then 
another. Frustrated, Cage asked, ‘Why?’ To which Schoenberg requested an 
underlying principle. This questioning of what music actually was would stay 
with Cage for the rest of his life. He worshipped Schoenberg’s ingenuity and the 
latter said famously of Cage that he was much ‘more than a musician but an 
inventor — of genius’. 

As a composer and accompanist at dance classes at the Cornish School in 
Seattle, Cage realized that his experience with Schoenberg had made him see 
that listeners could actively choose what to listen to at the point of listening. In 
1937 he wrote a brilliant lecture titled ‘The Future Of Music (Credo)’, which he 
delivered at the school. This predicted the rise of electronic music: ‘Through the 
aid of electrical instruments we will reach a music which will make available all 
sounds that can be heard.’ Cage talked of any sounds or noises being capable of 
electrical reproduction ‘within or beyond the reach of the imagination’. In his 
mind electronics opened up ‘the entire field of sound, the entire field of time 
where no rhythm would be beyond the composer’s earth’. Significantly he saw 
conventional use of inventions like the Theremin as being redundant, and 
looked instead to possibilities in radio, disc and film technology. These were 
explored in a series of radical pieces called Imaginary Landscapes (1939—52). No. 1 
(1939) featured vari-speed turntables playing RCA test recordings. No. 2 (1942) 
featured sounds produced by amplifying wire coil. No. 3, from the same year, 
included audio -frequency oscillators, amplified contact mikes and vari-speed 



46 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


turntables, while No. 4 (1951) featured twelve radio sets being continuously 
retuned. For the last of the series, Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952), Cage, with 
the help of Earle Brown and Bebe Barron, collaged forty-two jazz records into a 
huge tape mix. 

The early electronic pieces mentioned above featured much percussion. Cage 
was fascinated with percussion, particularly that of the Javanese gamelan. In 
1938 he found that by inserting everyday objects like pieces of rubber and paper, 
parts of broken dolls, bolts, screws, bits of felt and so on between the strings of a 
piano he could make it sound like a percussion ensemble. Thus was invented the 
‘prepared piano’. That year he first used it on Bacchanale and it would crop up 
again and again in pieces right up to the mid-1950s. Classic examples include the 
1943 She Is Asleep (duet with voice), the Orientally flavoured Perilous Night 
(1944) and the Indian-influenced Sonatas And Interludes (1949). 

Cage continued to work with percussion with Lou Harrison in California in 
1939. The following year he invented ‘Living Room Music’ for any percussion 
instruments found in a normal living room. During the early 1940s Cage 
accepted a post with the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (who had already 
done many electronic sound experiments at the Bauhaus) at the Chicago School 
of Design, teaching electronic music. But it was in 1942, on his arrival in New 
York, that the final piece of the jigsaw would slot into place. At the home of 
Max Ernst, Cage and his wife Xenia met two other founders of the Surrealist 
movement in painting, Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp. As early as 1913 
Duchamp had written a piece of music using ‘chance’ as a compositional tool. 
Cage and he immediately clicked and would in the future play many chess 
games together. Later during the same gathering Cage would meet the Irish- 
American choreographer Merce Cunningham. Their relationship would blos- 
som, Cage becoming musical director of the Merce Cunningham Dance 
Company until 1968 and living openly with Cunningham from 1947 after 
divorcing his wife in 1945. 

If the dance context was fertile for Cage’s fervent experimentalism, New 
York gave him more opportunities. He studied Zen Buddhism in 1946-7, and 
its calming aspect is apparent in the contemplative Nocturne (for violin and 
piano). In 1948 Cage hit his zenith as a composer. During a year when he 
organized an Erik Satie festival at Black Mountain College came two seven- 
minute piano pieces, Dream and In A Landscape , whose lack of adornment 
echoes Satie but whose drift reflects Cage’s growing Zen orientation. As his 
scores became more colourful and graphic, he spent nine months tossing coins, 
as outlined by the Chinese oracle the I Ching , to create charts for his forty-six- 
minute piano piece Music Of Changes , written in 1951 for David Tudor, a 
Philadelphian new musician who was involved in presenting all of Cage’s works 
up to 1970. 

By 1952 Cage was pursuing many directions at once. First, through the 
Magnetic Tape Music Project with Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff and Earle 
Brown, he came to be seen as America’s most radical electronic experimenter. 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


47 


Secondly, at Black Mountain College he staged the first ‘happening’ in the form 
of Theatre Piece , where Cunningham’s dancers, images by artist Robert 
Rauschenberg and David Tudor’s generated sounds confused and mesmerized 
an audience. Thirdly, his use of ‘chance operations’ continued with the 
ambitious Williams Mix for 600 collaged LP records written out over 192 
pages of script derived from the I Ching. Yet it was the performance of 4' 33” at 
Woodstock, in New York State, which revealed Cage as an Ambient visionary. 
In a performance delivered to a stupefied audience, Tudor raised the lid of the 
piano, sat there for the duration specified by the title of the piece and then closed 
the lid. The music was whatever sound the audience heard in the immediate 
vicinity. Cage had taken the Hindu philosophy of music to quieten the mind to 
its ultimate destination — silence. But in so doing he made everybody realize that 
such a thing didn’t really exist. He would go on to say: ‘The music I prefer is 
what we hear if we are just quiet.’ For such aphorisms as ‘I have nothing to say 
but saying it, that is poetry’ Cage would become infamous. A piano composi- 
tion of that year, Waiting , was full of silence. 

From that time on Cage caused uproar wherever he went. A European tour 
with Tudor provoked consternation. Pierre Boulez, with whom Cage had 
corresponded, was baffled by the American’s latest ideas. A 1958 retrospective of 
his work in New York enraged the audience with the random directions of the 
music, or non-music. (Some compared the hostile reaction to the riotous scenes 
which greeted Stravinsky’s multi-rhythmic Rite Of Spring in 1913.) The same 
year he went to Darmstadt, where he criticized Stockhausen’s eleventh 
Klavierstiick ( Piano Piece) for its lack of ‘indeterminacy’ and responded with 
the first of his anarchic Variations series, which from that time until 1978 were 
presented by means of all manner of electro-acoustic devices with the barest hint 
of direction. Variations 5 (1965) used Theremins and dancers to trigger sound, 
while Variations 8 (1978) was merely a title, with no music or recording 
whatsoever. 

‘Indeterminacy’ Cage saw as beyond chance, with almost nothing of the 
outcome being predictable. Luciano Berio invited Cage to Milan to work up 
the ‘indeterminate’ Fontana Mix, named after Cage’s landlady in an electronic 
studio. Over four months Cage used transparent sheets, drawings and graphs all 
superimposed in order to create three different recordings of hissing and 
gurglings, feedback and Cathy Berberian singing multi-lingual vowels and 
consonants in a number of different musical styles. 

During the 1960s Cage became a hero of the times. As Professor of Advanced 
Studies at the Wesleyan University, Connecticut, he had academic clout while 
his soft-spoken, humorous persona and mental brilliance made him shine 
wherever he went. Stockhausen, who always admired him, felt Cage was 
‘spiritually very consequent’. Such pieces as Cartridge Music (for turntable 
cartridges and other media) and ‘HPSCHD’ (for harpsichords, tapes, images 
and computer generated permutations courtesy of Lejaren Hiller), written in 
1960 and 1968 respectively, were electronic landmarks demonstrating an acute 



48 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


mind looking forward into the multi-media future. From 1952 to 1967 Cage 
wrote five pieces for the electronic Carillon, a neglected keyboard device 
developed in the US to replace the sound of belfry bells. Cage was directly 
influential on the electronic-theatre work of Robert Ashley, David Behrman, 
Gordon Mumma and Alvin Lucier who, in 1966, established the Sonic Arts 
Union — a New York-based group whose explorations of cybersonics, alpha 
brain rhythms, feedback music and environmental sound would have lasting 
impact on Ambient experiment. In 1969 he created Cheap Imitation , which uses 
Satie’s Socrate for a new transparently Ambient composition. A lover of Satie, 
Cage (who had already performed the French composer’s Vexations over two 
days in New York in 1963) played Satie’s ‘furniture music’ at a University of 
California performance, also in 1969. Two more versions of Cheap Imitation, for 
up to ninety-five players and for violin solo would be penned in 1972 and 1977 
respectively. Satie would also crop up in 1978’s Letter To Erik Satie and 1979’s J. 
Joyce, M. Duchamp, E. Satie: An Alphabet. 

Cage’s listed works total more than 330. His series of books from Silence (1961) 
onwards would go on to influence generations of musicians. An adept at 
mushroom farming, chess and literature, Cage was a true Renaissance man of 
the electronic age. By working in so many media he showed that the fundamental 
precepts of Schoenberg and Debussy could be used to finally unyoke twentieth- 
century music from the past. His use of ‘sound lines’ taken at random from text, 
starting in the late 1960s with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, were a revolutionary 
step towards a new vocal language. By objectifying art and eliminating purpose he 
raised the ideal of music composition to a new spiritual plane. He said once: ‘I 
don’t actually hear music before I write it. I write it in order to hear it.’ Full of 
paradoxes, he never owned any records and preferred the everyday noises outside 
his Manhattan apartment to anything else. When he died in 1992, at the age of 
seventy-nine, Cage’s hovering presence over the twentieth century was duly 
recognized. To him the essence of music was sound, the essence of making sounds 
was to ‘wake people up to the very life they are living’. 

LISTENING 

Works For Piano And Prepared Piano Vol. 1 — Joshua Pierce (Wergo 1986/88) 
Works For Piano And Prepared Piano Vol 2 — Joshua Pierce/Dorothy Jonas 

(Wergo 1988) 

Music Of Changes (for David Tudor) - Herbert Henck (Wergo 1988) 

The Perilous Night /Four Walls — Margaret Leng Tan (New Albion 1991) 
Cheap Imitation - Herbert Henck (Wergo 1991) 

A Chance Operation — Various (Koch 1993) 

In A Landscape — Stephen Drury (Catalyst 1994) 

Wergo has done a comprehensive cycle of recordings through its Edition John 
Cage. Vol 1 covers 1943—52 and includes She Is Asleep, the beautiful In A 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


49 


Landscape and Waiting. Vol. 2 (1944-58) features Dream , The Perilous Night and 
Nocturne , among other pieces. Music Of Changes , recorded in Bremen in 1982, 
contains some superlative sleeve notes by the performer, Herbert Henck. His 
version of Cheap Imitation is backed with Satie’s Socrate, from which it is derived. 
Leng Tang is a Cage scholar and was a close associate; her Four Walls is the first 
recording of a 1944 piece influenced by Indian time-cycles. A Chance Operation 
is a John Cage tribute, with all proceeds going to Gay Men’s Health Crisis. In 
more than 183 tracks on two discs, which are supposed to be randomly played 
so that there is never a repeated sequence, old friends like Christian Wolff, Earle 
Brown, Meredith Monk, John Cale and David Tudor, along with the likes of 
Laurie Anderson, the Kronos Quartet and Frank Zappa, pay homage to the 
composer. Anderson’s dulcet tones and soft electronic backing are used to good 
effect on Cage’s Cunningham Stories text. Cage pieces and new material in the 
spirit of Cage are mixed and matched. Ryuichi Sakamoto performs his own 
electronic Haiku while Frank Zappa produces himself performing 4' 33”. 
Completists should look out for the reissue of Voices And Instruments , a 1976 
recording of Robert Wyatt performing In A Landscape in a very quiet piano 
style, produced by Brian Eno. The 1994 Catalyst disc was specifically recorded 
to enhance the Ambient nature of Cage’s oeuvre and includes thoughtful piano 
explorations by Stephen Drury of both In A Landscape and Dream. 


OTTO LUENING AND VLADIMIR USSACHEVSKY 

An American and a Russian, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, were 
credited with the first public performance of tape music in the US, when, in 1952, 
they used Ampex tape recorders to manipulate a variety of musical sound sources. 
This odd pair went on to pioneer studio music in the form of their Columbia- 
Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York in 1959. Housing the first rather 
cumbersome RCA synthesizer, this allowed composers such as Varese and Milton 
Babbitt to freely experiment in the realm of purely artificial sound. 

Born in 1911 and raised in the Russian Orthodox church by an army officer in 
Manchuria, Vladimir Ussachevsky arrived in America in 1930. His interests in 
timbre, or sound quality, and musical structure and rhythm were refined by 
studies at Pomona College in California and Eastman School of Music in 
Rochester, New York. In 1947 he began teaching at Columbia University, a 
job he held until 1980. When Columbia received a gift of an Ampex tape 
recorder in 1951, Ussachevsky began experimentally recording violin, piano, 
vocal and clarinet sounds on the machine. This resulted in a series of short sound 
studies, Transposition , Reverberation, Experiment, Composition and Underwater Waltz, 
which emphasized tape’s versatility. The likes of Cage’s teacher Henry Cowell 
appreciated the freshness of the idea and Ussachevsky was soon joined by Otto 
Luening, a flautist with a bent for experiment who also taught at Columbia. 



50 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Luening was bom in Milwaukee in 1900. He had a fairly traditional musical 
education, attending music academy in Munich, and the Conservatoires of Paris 
and Zurich. The latter experience was important for Luening, for there between 
1918 and 1920 he studied with Busoni, who instilled in him the quest for 
radicalism. By now an able flautist, he returned to America to teach in various 
colleges in Arizona and Vermont. He arrived at Columbia in the mid- 1940s and 
stayed there until the late 60s. His meeting with Ussachevsky in 1952 was 
pivotal. Luening was also keen on the idea of tape music and the duo spent 
many months in various houses, including those of Cowell and the conductor 
Toscanini, working up new pieces. 

News spread and Stokowski was prepared to direct a performance of their tape 
music at the Museum of Modem Art in late 1952. Amid unprecedented publicity, 
the pair unveiled Sonic Contours, Invention, Low Speed and Fantasy In Space. All 
revealed the full versatility of tape for the first time and how it would alter for ever 
the idea of orchestral music. Ussachevsky, who wrote the first piece, leaned more 
towards pure experimentation, while Luening was a neoclassicist who favoured 
an integration of old and new. Purchase of a tape machine resulted in joint 
creations, the most important being the fourteen-minute A Poem For Cycles And 
Bells, which deftly melded orchestral sounds and tape manipulations. 

In the mid-1950s the pair received a Rockefeller Scholarship to research into 
electronic resources in the US and Europe. A tour of nearly two months brought 
them into contact with all the important studio wizards of the time: Pierre Schaeffer 
in Paris, Herbert Eimert at WDR in Cologne, where Stockhausen worked, and 
Luciano Berio in Milan, among others. Yet in America comparable facilities did not 
exist. Except for isolated commercial research carried out by companies, there was 
no US studio nor studio network which allowed proper exploration of the field by 
musicians and composers. On their return they were allowed to set up a lab at 
Columbia University. In 1956 Ussachevsky produced Piece For Tape Recorder, a five- 
and-a-half-minute work in which gong, cymbal and piano sounds were manipu- 
lated and flushed against environmental sounds. Luening also produced Ambient 
music for a version of King Lear by Orson Welles. 

The same year RCA unveiled its first synthesizer. Ussachevsky and Milton 
Babbitt were keen to get their hands on it. After much to-ing and fro-ing, 
Rockefeller again stumped up the cash, some $180,000, for the purchase of an 
RCA MK1 synthesizer and the building of a permanent facility at Columbia with 
Milton Babbitt also involved. Babbitt, who taught at Princeton and whose interest 
was in the refinement of Serial music, believed wholeheartedly in the new 
technology. He once said that ‘any recording is electronic music’. With the 
cumbersome RCA synthesizer (now at MK2 stage) , which used what looked like a 
series of typewriters to create punched cards using the binary coding system of 
alternate Is and 0s, Babbitt painstakingly built up his compositions with the help of 
tape and noise/tone generators. Such pieces as Ensembles For Synthesizer (1962-4) 
and Philomel (where a girl’s voices mutates into that of a nightingale) are considered 
landmarks of the Columbia-Princeton synthesizer lab. 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


51 


Meanwhile Ussachevsky and Luening busied themselves with such creations 
as Concerted Piece (1960), which further integrated tape experiment, electronics 
and orchestra. Ussachevsky continued further into sonic exploration with Of 
Wood And Brass (1965), which includes clever transformations of a Korean 
gong, but by the latter part of the decade he was obsessed with computer music. 
In this area Ussachevsky worked hard to synthesize new sound and form links 
between keyboard and computer in order to make easier the musician’s job of 
controlling complex systems. He also wrote music for film and television. He 
died in New York in 1990. As for Luening, he somehow returned to his 
neoclassical and late-Romantic predilections, penning large-scale symphonies 
and small-scale chamber works with the flute as a mainstay. No matter, for the 
two men’s electronic and Ambient excursions of the early to mid-1950s were to 
change forever the direction of American music. 


KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN 

One of the most significant figures in twentieth-century music, Karlheinz 
Stockhausen was the first composer to realize the dream of ‘pure’ electronic 
music. His inventions of the 1950s catapulted him to world fame where he 
became the spokesman of the post-war avant-garde. As the 1960s dawned 
Stockhausen’s brand of open and improvised music became associated with 
hippiedom - he was often criticized for his association with the likes of The 
Grateful Dead and his Zen Buddhist-influenced musings. Yet here was one of 
the most acute and rigorous minds in modern composition acknowledging the 
musicality of the new psychedelia. His Gesang der funglinge ( Song Of The Youths) 
and Hymnen ( Anthems ) both affected The Beatles. Stockhausen was a friend of 
John Lennon, and the German’s influence can be heard on the group’s 
extraordinary single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, the ‘Revolution 9’ collage 
(on The White Album) and on the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper s Lonely Hearts Club 
Band , the cover of which features a photographic tribute to Stockhausen. One 
of the foremost exponents of live electronic music, Stockhausen pursued an 
endless quest for new sounds, leading to the growth of World Music. In the 
1990s his opinion was still being sought by Techno and Ambient musicians as to 
the validity of their work. 

Stockhausen’s strange and tragic upbringing undoubtedly forged his hugely 
resilient and workaholic character. Born in 1928 in the mining town of 
Modrath, near Cologne, to a schoolteacher father and pianist mother, Stock- 
hausen was to endure a succession of moves as a child. These, coupled with 
numerous pregnancies, caused the mental breakdown of his mother, Gertrud, 
who was institutionalized in 1932. Within a year Stockhausen’s younger brother 
was dead and soon after Karlheinz found himself in the cathedral town of 
Altenberg. Still, travelling circuses and improvised theatre peppered his early 



52 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


years and he started on piano when only three. He listened avidly to both radio 
and records, this fascination with sound leading to a damaged right ear when he 
put it too close to a transformer. His father’s links with the Nazis and remarriage 
led to Stockhausen fleeing home, first working as a cobbler, then attending 
teacher-training college at Xanten when only fifteen. 

There he studied the oboe, violin and piano, but then the coming of the war 
saw the college turned into a hospital. Stockhausen became a stretcher-bearer, 
witnessed many horrors and came within an inch of his life on more than one 
occasion. His survival he put down to his Catholic faith: ‘I knew for certain that 
God was shining up there and looking at me and he gave me so much light.’ 
Worse was to follow. At the end of the war in 1945 Stockhausen learned that his 
father had been denounced and virtually murdered at the front, while his 
mother had perished in a gas chamber as early as 1941. Now seventeen, he was 
an orphan. 

The theatre, forestry and farming were some of the varied activities Stock- 
hausen involved himself in before going to Cologne to study music. There he 
played jazz for black GIs and after more study was admitted to the Music School 
in 1948. In addition he studied philosophy, musicology and the history of 
language at Cologne University. He wrote literature which was praised by 
Hermann Hesse and met the pianist Doris Andreae, who was to become his first 
wife. During the later part of his studies he went on the road with the conjuror 
Adrion and played piano in a ‘magic chamber art’ show. His first compositions, 
Chore fur Doris ( Choruses For Doris) and Chorale, both written in 1950, were 
incredibly accomplished. The latter was inspired by Schoenberg and displayed a 
virtuosic use of lengthy silences and volume cadences. Both undoubtedly reflect 
the bleak North Rhine landscape of Stockhausen’s childhood. 

Nineteen fifty-one was the turning point for the young German. Taken up 
by Herbert Eimert, a critic at West German Radio (WDR) in Cologne who 
admired Schoenberg, Stockhausen was invited to Darmstadt, where a series of 
new music summer courses inspired by Messiaen had started. Pierre Schaeffer, 
the Italian avantist Luigi Nono and the physicist Wemer Meyer-Eppler (whose 
interest was in chance or aleatory music) were some of the people Stockhausen 
met that summer. Eimert and Meyer-Eppler would initiate the founding of an 
electronic studio at WDR that same year. Around that time Stockhausen 
graduated with distinction. 

In 1953 he attended Messiaen’s analysis classes at the Paris Conservatoire. The 
Frenchman’s teaching, based on innovation by example and understanding, was 
an inspiration for Stockhausen. Messiaen, for his part, was convinced that the 
twenty-five-year-old German was ‘an absolute genius’. Kreuzspiel ( Crossplay ) of 
1951, which isolated points of sound, had certainly been Stockhausen’s eleven- 
minute kick in the face to Romanticism. While in Paris Stockhausen met Pierre 
Boulez and visited Pierre Schaeffer’s studio at Radio France. Soon he was 
working there on sound analysis and spent just one month coming up with 
Study, a piece which combined electronic sound with concrete music and 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


53 


mixed frequency generator noise with prepared piano. Schaeffer, in search of a 
wider palette of sound, wasn’t impressed and Stockhausen soon found himself 
back in Germany. 

Having long admired the music of Anton Webern, Stockhausen stated in 
1953 that his interest was ‘in the abolition of very long and very short time 
values’. He joined Eimert at WDR in Cologne as his assistant and set off on 
an electronic voyage. He rejected outright the use of instruments and opted to 
build up new sounds using sine- wave generators, modulators and tape. After 
months of desperate work involving problems with tape noise, manual 
synchronization and equipment failure, Study 1 was unveiled as a fresh 
distillation of chilling atmosphere. A more obtuse piece, the short Study 2, 
was finished by the summer of 1954 and was reputedly the first electronic 
score ever published. 

Between 1954 and 1956 Stockhausen pursued further studies at Bonn 
University. He was drawn by Meyer-Eppler’s acoustical research into vocoders 
and sonic measurement. Also stimulated by John Cage’s interest in ‘chance’ 
music, Stockhausen would soon meet the American and Edgard Varese, both of 
whom he greatly admired. Fascinated by the versatility of tape, in 1955 
Stockhausen wanted to create an electronic mass for Cologne Cathedral. 
The idea was rejected but the composer set about writing a section: The Song 
Of The Youths In The Fiery Furnace , later abbreviated to the famous Gesang der 
Junglinge ( Song Of The Youths). Using pulse generator, volume meter and 
feedback filter, Stockhausen spent six months breaking down every element 
of human speech and matching it to every conceivable sound from sine tone to 
white noise. The result of this painstaking process was only five minutes of 
valuable sound; but by May 1956 he had completed a piece lasting thirteen 
minutes and fourteen seconds. The debut performance of Gesang der Junglinge, 
projected through five loudspeakers at the broadcasting studio of WDR in 
Cologne, caused uproar and applause. Electronic music was here to stay and 
Stockhausen’s name would reverberate around the world. 

Stockhausen attracted many new musicians and composers to Cologne, 
including the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti. His next important piece was Kontakte 
(Contacts), where tape loops were used to create a kaleidoscope of electronic 
sounds. Here the acceleration of tape caused pulses to become rhythms, rhythms 
to become pitches, pitches to become timbres. He famously used a rotary table 
to splash sound around four different microphones. Photographs of the 
composer at the time show him lost in the hub of WDR’s electronic equipment. 
And after six months of intense work the premier of this thirty-five-minute 
piece in Cologne in 1960 proved that Stockhausen was the leader of a new 
musical revolution. 

In Cologne he attracted the interest of many, including the German 
philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adomo, the musician David Tudor 
and a young painter named Mary Bauermeister, who would eventually become 
his second wife. Meanwhile others raged against Stockhausen’s music, the 



54 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


German press describing it as ‘a denaturalized montage of noises derived from 
physics’. But the composer’s sheer willingness to experiment and his innovative 
method of teaching, where new compositions would be worked out in classes, 
was already being admired throughout the world. In 1963 he founded the 
Cologne Course for New Music and in 1964 experimented with ‘electronically 
treated sound’, in which a traditional orchestra would be split into sections, its 
various sounds relayed to mixing desks allied to generators and modulators. This 
concept was to be hugely influential in Ambient music. 

After spending much time in the US, Stockhausen visited Japan in early 1966. 
Influenced by the peace of Kyoto and Japanese culture in general, he made 
Telemusik at the Tokyo NHK studio of Japanese radio. This seventeen-minute 
amalgam of musical quotations, derived from Vietnam, Hungary, the Amazon, 
the Sahara and elsewhere and subjected to Stockhausen’s electronic vision, 
would be the occasion of one of his most prophetic statements: ‘I wanted to 
come closer to a music of the whole world, of all cultures and races.’ This vision 
of World Music would implant itself in the collective psyche and resonate 
through electronic and Ambient music for the rest of the century. On his way 
back from Japan the composer toured Malaysia, India, Iran, the Lebanon and 
Turkey. 

On a high, Stockhausen arrived in California near the end of 1966 to spend 
six months lecturing at UCLA. In the firmament he met the leading San 
Francisco psychedelic groups of the era, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful 
Dead. They attended his lectures, he attended psychedelicized concerts at the 
infamous Fillmore West. Before he left, in the spring of 1967, Stockhausen had 
married Mary Bauermeister and had expanded his vision of World Music to 
produce a piece incorporating forty national anthems. Lasting over two hours, 
Hymnen (Anthems) would summarize Stockhausen’s impressions of life up to that 
point in a work which mixed electronic sound and concrete music. Discon- 
nected versions of the Gemian, French and British national anthems caused 
consternation at the piece’s debut at a WDR concert in November 1967. 
Patriots everywhere were outraged but Stockhausen was just demonstrating the 
fluidity of new electronic processes. Hymnen would go on to become one of his 
most influential works particularly in the area of experimental rock. 

Stimmung ( Tuning In), a lengthy static work for six voices, was written in 1968 
after a trip to Mexico. Its use of erotic poetry dismayed many audiences of the 
time. Stockhausen called Kurzwellen (Shortwaves), an improvisation based on 
Morse code signals, ‘a quest for the harmony of the spheres through the guise of 
technology and electricity’. This idea would be enthusiastically seized upon by 
the German group Can and their technical boffin, Holger Czukay, in later years. 
Another development was ‘intuitive music’, sparked off by the sudden departure 
of Ma ry Bauermeister. Going on hunger strike as protest and after four days in 
isolation, Stockhausen came up with Aus den sieben Tagen ( From The Seven Days) 
a mystical series of fourteen stanzas full of philosophy and musical instructions. 
He developed this into a form of ‘House Music’ at Darmstadt, where people 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


55 


would wander through a scenario filled with musicians improvising and playing 
from scores. 

In 1969 a planned concert with The Beatles never came off but Stockhausen 
did meet Frank Zappa in New York. At the height of his fame Stockhausen 
would be the star of the World Fair of 1970 held at Osaka. Inside West 
Germany’s spherical metallic-blue pavilion, dotted with points of light, an 
instrumental ensemble augmented by electronics would perform over a nine- 
month period all of the works Stockhausen had written up to then. For five and 
a half hours each day the composer would balance and control the sound from a 
large mixing console via fifty-five loudspeakers arranged in seven rings. A total 
of one milli on listeners were attracted to this futuristic scenario, reminiscent of 
‘musical space travel’. A visit to Ceylon would produce two ethno-acoustic 
pieces, Ceylon and Mantra. In 1976 Ceylon would be released by the British 
Chrysalis label as a rock album. 

With Mantra the idea of ‘formula music’ came into play. This was a technique 
whereby a simple musical idea could be expanded over time. Miles Davis had 
done something similar in 1959’s Kind Of Blue but here Stockhausen was 
dealing with a piano motif treated by various electronics at a Munich studio. 
The result was considered to be beautiful and quasi-meditative. More med- 
itative still was Tierkreis (Zodiac), a series of accessible melodies based on the 
twelve signs of the zodiac. With versions for percussion, chamber orchestra, 
clarinet and piano, it was to become Stockhausen’s most popular work. 

In 1977, having been Professor of Composition at Cologne’s Music School 
for seven years, Stockhausen resigned to devote himself to the creation of an 
enormous opera cycle, Licht (Light), for solo voices, solo instruments, solo 
dancers, choirs, orchestras, ballet, electronic sound and concrete music. This 
massive concept, encompassing the history of the world and the cosmos and 
based on the significance of the seven days of the week in various cultures, was 
Stockhausen’s attempt to outdo Wagner by creating the longest ‘total- art piece’ 
(Gesamtkunstwerk) in the history of music. Each ‘day’ would have its own opera 
lasting several hours, and each opera would take three and a half years to 
execute, with various parts staged around Europe. For technical help Stock- 
hausen turned to his old friend Pierre Boulez at the Institute for the Research 
and Co-ordination of Electro-Acoustic Music (IRCAM in French) in Paris. 
The first complete day, Donnerstag aus Licht (Thursday From Light), was com- 
pleted by 1981 and premiered in Milan. After more work on the large IRCAM 
mainframe computer, Samstag aus Licht (Saturday From Light) was completed in 
1984. After switching to a new generation of more compact synthesizers, 
samplers and effects units, Stockhausen completed Montag aus Licht (Monday 
From Light) in 1988. In the early 1990s he worked with his son Simon on 
Octophony for eight groups of loudspeakers, using horizontal, diagonal and 
vertical movement of electronic sound clusters. The piece was from Dienstag aus 
Licht (Tuesday From Light), which was premiered at Leipzig in 1993. 

Stockhausen was now ably abetted by the American clarinettist Suzanne 



56 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Stephens and the Dutch flautist Kathinka Pasveer, plus members of his family: 
Simon, his other son the famous trumpeter Markus and his pianist daughter 
Majella. As he finished Freitag aus Licht ( Friday From Light) in 1995, Stockhausen 
considered himself to be a ‘musician experiencing the mysteries of discovery’. 
He still had the power to shock as he attempted to stage a helicopter string 
quartet in a now unified Germany. The concept was objected to in his own 
country but performed in Holland with the help of the Royal Dutch Airforce as 
an extract from Mittwoch aus Licht ( Wednesday From Light). With that day 
completed in 1998 and 1999 spent preparing work on his last operatic day, 
Sunday , again Stockhausen showed that for sheer stamina and dedication to his 
musical vision, he was in a class of his own. The ideal of having Light performed 
in its entirety in the twenty-first century seemed fitting for a composer who 
gave so much to the twentieth. 

Near the end of 1995 the composer was contacted by the BBC and asked his 
opinion of new Techno music by such Ambient trend-setters of the time as 
Richie Hawtin, Aphex Twin and Scanner. He was happy to see the young still 
experimenting and looking for new sounds, as in the telephone sampled work 
of Scanner. For nearly half a century the guru of Cologne, in long-sleeved 
Mexican shirts and with flowing blond hair, has exerted a powerful effect on 
the development of electronic and Ambient music. For Stockhausen the way 
ahead is clear and unbounded: ‘I just don’t see any limits in the foreseeable 
future.’ 

LISTENING 

Stimmung — Singcircle (Hyperion 1986) 

Aus den sieben Tagen - Ensemble Musique Vivante (Harmonia Mundi 1988) 
Mantra - Mikashoff/Bevan (New Albion 1990) 

Chore fur Doris / Chorale — North German Radio Choir (Stockhausen-Verlag 
1 1991) 

Electronic Music 1952—1960 (Stockhausen-Verlag 3 1991) 

Tierkreis (Stockhausen-Verlag 24 1992) 

Hymnen — Electronic And Concrete Music With Soloists (Stockhausen- 
Verlag 10 1995) 

The Stimmung CD is considered one of the best Stockhausen recordings. The 
‘Set Sail For The Sun’ section of Aus den sieben Tagen is a successful build-up of 
extraordinary sounds featuring Aloys Kontarsky’s rumbling piano. The Mantra 
disc was. recorded in Norway; its packaging and sleeve notes are superb. Since 
the early 1990s Stockhausen has undertaken to digitally remaster his entire 
catalogue. The early choral works are collected on Chore fur Doris , a disc which 
also includes Kreuzspiel. The Electronic Music disc is a tour de force containing the 
long-lost Study , written in France in 1952, the classic Gesang der Junglinge and 
Kontakte among other works. A 134-page booklet full of photos, scores, 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


57 


extensive notes and much else written by the composer completes an impressive 
package. Tierkreis is a lovely little CD which features the tinkly sound of twelve 
musical boxes manufactured to Stockhausen’s specifications at a Swiss factory. 
Hymnen is a huge four-CD and 200-page booklet affair with two discs devoted 
to the first version and two devoted to the second with soloists, premiered at 
WDR in 1967 and 1969 respectively. 


MILES DAVIS 

The pre-eminent jazz musician of the century, Miles Davis did more than just 
become a star - he fused musics, broke down racial barriers and demonstrated 
that the work of Debussy and Messiaen could easily be absorbed into the great 
black art of improvisation. Up until Davis, real jazz was about speed and frenetic 
solos. Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker — the stars of the be-bop 
post-war urban jazz scene — were all about cascades of notes tumbling out of 
brass instruments, imitating the speed of modernity. Ornette Coleman took 
over at the beginning of the 1960s with Free Jazz — a concept veering towards 
atonality where anything went. Miles Davis, in contrast, stood back, refined the 
melody down to a sound which was termed ‘the cool’. This new Ambient jazz 
sound would define jazz for all time. 

Miles Davis was bom in Illinois in 1926 of affluent parents. His father being a 
landowning dentist helped when Davis attended the prestigious Juilliard School 
of Music in 1945 (a New York College which would later tutor such famous 
Minimalists as Philip Glass and Steve Reich). Many middle-ground jazz 
musicians have cited Davis’s background as the reason for his fame but this 
is just plain sour grapes. Davis worked harder than most to achieve what he did. 
When he was very young his family moved to East St Louis. Miles played 
tmmpet in high-school bands and had private tuition which emphasized tone 
over technique or flashy soloing. As early as eighteen he was playing with the 
famous band of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. 

When he arrived in New York to go to the Juilliard, Davis spent more time 
running around after Charlie Parker than attending his formal studies. Helped 
by the brilliant pianist Thelonius Monk, he learned his trade playing in the bars 
and clubs of 52nd Street. In 1947, at the age of twenty-one, he replaced 
Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s band and his career began to take off, although after 
a year and a half Parker’s nosedive into heroin addiction forced the young 
tmmpeter to quit. 

In late 1948 Davis met the Canadian arranger Gil Evans, an event which 
would led to the reshaping of the whole of jazz. Along with baritone 
saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and others, Davis and Evans cut a series of 
recordings which in 1949 was released on record as The Birth Of The Cool. 
Here the idea was to produce ‘clouds of sound’ which would envelop the 



58 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


listener. The delirious sounds of be-bop bad mutated into the ‘cool’ sound, 
where Davis’s clipped phrasing, clear spacing and held notes came to the 
fore. This music was pure Impressionism, linking jazz to Debussy and 
aimed at achieving a peacefulness that in retrospect could be termed 
Ambient. 

Five years would be spent in his own dark cloud of heroin addiction but by 
1954, through sheer force of personality, Davis had kicked the habit. By 1955 he 
was a star with a big Columbia contract and a quintet which featured the era’s 
finest jazz musicians in the saxophonists Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley and John 
Coltrane. Again many would criticize Davis’s mid-range playing, his tendency 
to fluff notes and his use of trumpet mute. Many felt he wasn’t as good as jazz 
giants Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong or Gillespie but Davis was wide open 
to new ideas. And none was more influential than the recording of Miles Ahead 
in 1957. Here with Gil Evans and an ensemble simply termed 19, Davis pushed 
orchestral jazz into new dimensions. All the tracks bled into one another and 
Miles’s rounded soft flugelhom embraced fascinating sounds like his version of 
the French composer Delibes’ nineteenth-century ode to Spain The Maids Of 
Cadiz. In places the orchestration was a bit racy but ‘Blues For Pablo’, which 
intersected blues and Spanish idioms, and the allusive ‘My Ship’ were definitive 
spare delicacies. 

A record titled Milestones , released the following year, dangled Miles’s ever 
more elegant trumpet solos over a shifting rhythmic landscape. The idea of 
modal playing was in the air, George Russell’s famous treatise on Greek modes 
having permeated the mind of John Coltrane in the mid-1950s. Modes, being 
scales or partial scales, had redefined twentieth-century music via Messiaen and 
Stockhausen, opening it right out. Sick of years of hearing relentless soloing 
based on chords crammed up against each other, Miles decided to gamble on a 
series of modal sketches recorded in April 1959 in New York City. The result 
was the classic Kind Of Blue. With what still is the greatest jazz combo of all time 
— including Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans on piano, Davis 
fashioned forty-five minutes of pristine music which seemed to float, slowly 
insinuating itself into the listener’s consciousness. There was plenty of aural 
space and the instruments were perfectly poised both in unison and individually. 
No one soloist attempted to outshine the other. All were in harmony. Both 
‘Flamenco Sketches’ and ‘All Blues’ started out like cool summer-night jazz 
tunes, almost soundtrack music for a film noir of the period, but slowly crossed 
into the musics of southern Spain and North Africa. ‘So What’, with its finger- 
click beat, became Davis’s anthem while John Coltrane had never sounded so 
elegant and restrained. 

Back in the studio at the end of 1959 and beginning of 1960, Davis was again 
working with Gil Evans. And again he was entranced by the music of Spain. 
Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez , written for guitar and orchestra, was in his head 
and a fruitful recording took place which would become a best-seller. Sketches 
Of Spain , released in 1960, placed Miles’s linear trumpet lines in beautifully 



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skeletal orchestrations which emphasized the sinuous character of Hispanic 
music. There were excerpts from the work of Manuel de Falla, folk melodies 
and two flamenco song forms done in instmmental style, including the famous 
Andalusian ‘Solea’ or song of the lonely. Davis had broken jazz clean out of its 
confines and demonstrated with incredible aplomb that it was a match for older 
European music forms. 

The album Quiet Nights would surface in 1963. It featured some good 
Iberian-sounding music, notably the famous Brazilian songwriter Antonio 
Carlos Jobim’s ‘Corcovado’, which inspired the album’s title. Miles’s raspy, 
silence-filled trumpet could be heard to supreme effect on the West Coast 
group track ‘Summer Night’. Yet Davis was an ever-changing chameleon never 
satisfied with one style or commercial setting. Returning to group jazz 
improvisation, he made some fascinating records like E.S.P. in 1965 and 
Nefertiti in 1967 but much of the music was too active to evoke the same 
Ambient effect. Davis would rely more and more on Teo Macero, a top sound 
engineer and Master’s graduate of the Juilliard who had played a key role in the 
studio since the Kind Of Blue period of 1959. Almost ten years later Miles would 
book into the Columbia label’s studio in New York with a new concept. His 
usual acoustic combo was augmented by electric pianists Herbie Hancock, Joe 
Zawinul and Chick Corea. A young guitarist named John McLaughlin, who 
had recently left London, was brought in by chance. Two hours of music was 
recorded which Teo Macero edited down to two album sides entitled In A 
Silent Way. What began as a simmering low-key pot of rhythmically driven 
sound became a beautiful sound-painting straight out of the Spanish-flavoured 
Gil Evans days. ‘It’s About That Time’ finally flung jazz right into the tight beats 
of 60s rock music. The concept of jazz-rock fusion was invented and Davis did 
not look back once. Listening to that incredible trumpet sound, carving space in 
the canyon of shimmering keyboards and guitar, that is In A Silent Way , we hear 
a musician that wasn’t afraid to unite Debussy with Stockhausen and most black 
musical styles in a quest for melodic tranquillity. 

LISTENING 

Though Miles Davis died in California in 1991, his enormous stature is still 
lauded right across the musical spectrum. Vast quantities of recordings appear 
under his name, but if you want the real Cool style at its most accessible Miles 
Ahead (Columbia 1957), Kind Of Blue (Columbia 1959), Sketches of Spain 
(Columbia 1960) and Quiet Nights (Columbia 1963) are all thoroughly re- 
commended. Kind Of Blue is considered the greatest jazz recording of the 
century, simply because of its perfect elegance and symmetry — short melodies 
began on one instrument, developed on others, were repeated and then reprised 
at the end. No self-indulgence was allowed. The album’s precise beauty is made 
more miraculous by the fact that Davis entered the studio with only a few partial 
scales and one or two chords written down as guidelines for the musicians. 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


(Though in his 1958 recording of Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess with Gil Evans, his 
reading of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘So 
What’.) 

Miles Ahead has dated in places but when it’s good it’s incredible - for 
example, the little trumpet motif at the end of ‘Springsville’ which then leads 
into the languorous, humid and hypnotic ‘Maids Of Cadiz’. Sketches Of Spain is 
simply fantastic, Davis’s fractured trumpet soloing conjuring up endless vistas of 
more moonlit Andalusian nights. Neither Davis nor Gil Evans liked Quiet 
Nights , but it is again compact and calm-inducing. In A Silent Way limbers up for 
the big jazz-rock recordings of the 1970s but is more restrained, its textures 
shifting and blurring; the twenty-four-minute title track summoning all the 
emotional contemplation from Miles before he dives into the rock maelstrom of 
the album’s closing fifteen minutes. 


DAPHNE ORAM 

One of the great female innovators in electronic sound, Daphne Oram came to 
prominence as the key instigator of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the late 
1950s. As the inventor of a photo-electric music system she realized early that 
electronics were vital for the development of twentieth-century music. Her 
continual campaigning for research greatly furthered the cause in the UK, 
where electronic-music labs on the large-scale, state-funded European and 
American model simply didn’t exist. 

Born in 1925 near Salisbury Plain, England, Oram was always interested in 
sound and experimented with the piano and primitive electronics as a child. A 
gifted musician, she spumed music college for an engineering job at the BBC 
when only seventeen. Within a year she was investigating graphic sound- 
generating systems. Through the late 1940s and early 50s she fought many 
verbal battles with the conservative corporation about the validity of electronics. 
When she secretly wired up a radio studio with a batch of recently acquired tape 
machines it was the drama department which saw the potential of her ideas. 

In 1957 various electronic sound effects created by Oram were broadcast and 
in 1958 she soundtracked a TV play. The same year she became a director of the 
BBC Radiophonic Workshop but quickly lost interest when she saw no 
enthusiasm for electronic music in its own right. The turning point came that 
year when Oram met Karlheinz Stockhausen at a music fair in Bmssels. She 
quickly resigned from her job, using her pension to set up a primitive studio in 
Kent. By 1962 she received European support to develop Oramics, a highly 
developed drawn-sound system, as good if not better than optical modes 
experimented with in Canada and Russia. Oramics consisted of a series of 
35mm plastic film strips which travelled over a cluster of photo-electric cells. 
The application of patterns to the strips caused changes in voltage which could 



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be used to determine musical parameters. The film strips themselves were kept 
in strict synchronization by an electric motor. 

Some have compared the sophistication of this system to the results achieved by 
the big American synthesizers of the period and given the fact that Oram was 
working alone at her home in Kent, it was simply down to her genius for electronic 
music that she went so far with so little. She described Oramics as a ‘Digital/ 
Analogue compositional technique’ having created the Oramics’ piece 4 Aspects as 
early as 1959. By the 1960s she was lecturing extensively on electronic music, 
concentrating on the works of Stockhausen and Berio as well as Oramics. Her 
vision of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop would bear fruit when Delia Derby- 
shire produced the other-worldly Doctor Who theme there in 1963. 

Meanwhile Oram continued to write electronic music for a wide variety of uses 
including the stage, broadcast, film and art environments. She had already scored the 
1961 British film The Innocents but in 1965 contributed brilliantly to a Common- 
wealth cultural exhibition at the Royal Academy whereby her Pulse Persephone 
brought together World Music samples, Oramic sounds, electric guitar and sub- 
sonic pulse which made the floor rumble. Certainly it was one of the very first 
examples of environmental Ambient music in the UK. Since then she has scored 
much for new ballet, toured the world, and written and lectured extensively on 
Oramics. Having taught for seven years at Christ Church College in Canterbury, 
the great Daphne Oram spent the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 90s 
transferring her pioneering Oramics invention to new digital computer systems. 


RAYMOND SCOTT 

Only after his death in 1994 at the age of eighty-five did the world realize the 
importance of the American electronic pioneer Raymond Scott. A musical prodigy 
and engineer of brilliance, Scott followed Erik Satie’s anarchic approach to 
composition and was influenced by the likes of Friedrich Trautwein and Leon 
Theremin in the realm of instmment invention. Forever dreaming of an ‘artistic 
collaboration between man and machine’ and the idea of ‘instantaneous composi- 
tion’, Scott inadvertently prefigured the ideas of twentieth-century Ambience. His 
trilogy of albums Soothing Sounds For Baby (Epic 1963) is an astonishing portent of 
early-70s German electronica and even the late-80s sound of Chicago Acid House. 

Scott was born Harry Warnow in 1908 in New York. His parents were 
Russian emigres; his father played violin and owned a music shop. Like Philip 
Glass, the young Scott grew up in a family fascinated with records. He begun 
playing the piano at the age of two but later was all set for an engineering career, 
studying at Brooklyn Polytechnic. But then, on the advice of his brother (a 
gifted violinist and conductor), Scott, like Glass, attended the Juilliard School of 
Music. After graduating in 1931 he worked for CBS radio as a staff pianist. He 
changed his name from Warnow to Scott because it sounded better. 



62 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


After five years at CBS Scott was married and ambitious for his own band. In 
1936 he formed a swing jazz ‘Quintette’ of six men and Duke Ellington’s 
manager offered them a contract after early radio sessions. Like Satie, Scott 
named his pieces idiosyncratically: titles like Celebration On The Planet Mars and 
Dedicatory Piece To The Crew & Passengers Of First Experimental Rocket Express To 
The Moon were the norm. His style was a mixture of Debussy and jazz. No 
scored music was used, Scott directing everything from his piano. He even 
issued bizarre instructions to his musicians about performance, as Eno would do 
nearly forty years later when he was making solo rock records. Stravinsky was a 
fan and within a year of its debut Scott’s Quintette was hired by Hollywood. 

By 1938 Scott was musical director at CBS, and in 1942 hired their first black 
and white studio orchestra, which included the two great tenor saxophonists 
Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. In 1943 Warner Brothers purchased a 
clutch of Scott’s tunes for later use in cartoon strips. 

Scott worked on Broadway during the mid- 1940s and even had his Suite For 
Violin And Piano played at Carnegie Hall. He released albums of exotic jazz in the 
latter part of the decade and by 1952 had remarried, this time to singer Dorothy 
Collins, and was pursuing a lucrative career writing advertising jingles and film 
scores and working in A&R. He even auditioned Bo Diddley and at one stage 
owned Universal Recording Studios. He used a fortune made in the music business 
to build electronic instmments by night. Manhattan Music Inc. was the name he 
gave the laboratory he set up in 1946. Within two years he had spent $100,000 on 
Karloff, a sound-effects machine. He worked on multi-track tape and by 1952 had 
seven- and fourteen-track machines installed. Over the next three years he even 
redesigned the Theremin as the Clavivox, a keyboard that had foot-pedals and 
allowed greater control over the former’s characteristic shivery sound. 

In the mid-1950s Scott was living in a four-storey, thirty-two-room house in 
Long Island stuffed with equipment and a lift. Robert Moog (who was on his 
way to creating the great Moog synthesizer) designed many circuits and 
modules for Scott between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s. 

An inveterate inventor, Scott created dozens of devices, including the Videola (a 
soundtrack-recording console) in 1959, the Circle Machine (an early rhythm 
sequencer) in 1961 and, throughout the 1950s and 60s, his instantaneous composi- 
tion performance machine, the Electronium. Visitors to his house in 1965 were 
stunned by an enormous wall of equipment thirty feet long and six feet high: a 
polyphonic synthesizer-sequencer rigged with telephone switching equipment. 

In 1967 Scott married for the third time. His house looked like the inside of a 
rocket pod, all flashing lights and whirring gadgets. The Electronium was his 
passion, and produced pulsations which appealed to Berry Gordy, the head of 
Tamla Motown. After a meeting with Gordy in 1969 Scott and his wife Mitzi 
were relocated in California and he spent seven years researching electronic 
equipment for the giant of recorded soul music. 

The Electronium was never finished to anyone’s satisfaction and a combination 
of secrecy, seclusion and paranoia meant Scott was overtaken by those, like Moog, 



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intent on providing practical affordable synthesizers for everyday use. Crippled by 
heart disease during the 1980s, he was by then considered a figure from the distant 
jazz age who spent too long playing with his gizmos. The posthumous reissue of his 
electronic music in 1997 saw him ironically dubbed a ‘cyberpunk’. 

LISTENING 

The Soothing Sounds For Baby series, released by Epic in 1963, was reissued by 
Basta in 1997 to much critical acclaim. These lengthy dronal electronic pieces 
seemed to have more in common with the 1970s and 80s than the era in which 
Scott made them. Manhattan Research Inc. (Basta 2000) is a sumptuously 
presented two-CD and 144-page book package focusing on Scott’s advertising 
jingles, film music and other futurama from the late 1950s and 60s. 


GYORGY LIGETI 

One of the most extraordinary composers of the twentieth century, Gyorgy 
Ligeti came from the Transylvania region of Hungary in the late 1950s to take 
on modem music and succeeded more than anyone else in creating incredible 
blocks of sound that rejected all the rules. By concentrating on the vertical 
characteristics of music rather than traditional linear development, Ligeti 
showed that that the ‘tone-colour’ aspect of Schoenberg’s Serialism could be 
extended into unforeseen pastures. So brilliant were his creations that they were 
used by Stanley Kubrick in the renowned 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey to 
permeate its atmosphere with a feeling of disquietening stillness. 

Bom in 1923, Ligeti was from a family that suffered much atrocity and 
hardship under the Nazis. From 1945 to 1949 he studied at the Franz Liszt 
Academy in Budapest, where he was impressed by the Ambient reductionism of 
John Cage and later lectured in music. In 1950, a year he saw as music’s chance 
to begin again from ground zero, he made a concerted effort to create ‘a static, 
motionless music’. Within a year he was constmcting pieces from a single note 
but was frustrated by lack of feedback. In 1956, amid anti- Communist anarchy 
as the Red Army assailed Budapest, Ligeti accidentally heard Stockhausen’s 
newly completed electronic masterpiece Gesang der Junglinge ( Song Of The 
Youths) on the radio. Smitten and inspired, he raced from his war-torn land via 
Vienna and arrived in Cologne in 1957. 

Helped by Stockhausen, Ligeti soon found a post at West German Radio’s 
electronic studio in Cologne, where he conceived Artikulation for tape in 1958. 
The following year he settled in Vienna, and throughout the 1960s was to teach 
both in Darmstadt and at the Stockholm Music Academy. His keen search to 
find a music of texture which relied on subtle changes of vertical colour and 
volume led to two orchestral masterpieces, Apparitions (1960) and Atmospheres 



64 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


(1961). Here Ligeti laid out his conception of microscopic multi- voicing as 
wind instruments, horns, tmmpets, piano and strings vibrated, appeared and 
receded but did not travel along any kind of linear plane. The sounds were 
simply there and then they were gone. 

Early in 1964 the American director Stanley Kubrick began working with the 
science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke on what was to become the greatest sci-fi 
film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Writing and shooting would last four years. 
Kubrick felt Ligeti’s music was extremely powerful, particularly the way it used 
volume and timbre to express emotion. He was also impressed by its ‘spacey’ 
connotations and knew it would be perfect for his vision. Kubrick used Ligeti’s 
Requiem of 1965 to accompany scenes featuring a black alien monolith. Shivering 
choirs and voices, set against a spartan orchestra, perfectly summed up feelings of 
deep fear on encountering the unknown. The extreme volume changes of 
Atmospheres accompanied an astronaut’s kaleidoscopic trip through a star-gate. 
Yet it was Kubrick’s choice of Lux Aeterna ( Eternal Light) of 1966 that most 
captured the imagination. Ligeti’s nine-minute opus for sixteen-strong choir is 
stasis perfected as crystalline voices (male and female) blur into one another to form 
sonic colours of striking beauty. On its own it conveys a unique Ambience but used 
in conjunction with Kubrick’s images of a space capsule silently crossing an 
authentic lunar landscape Lux Aeterna is simply astonishing. N ever before nor since 
has music being used to convey such a sense of limitless emptiness. 

During the late 1960s and early 70s Ligeti lectured and composed in West 
Berlin and California. His dense style became more lucid, as exemplified by his 
Melodies For Orchestra (1971). Interested in Surrealism, The Beatles, clockwork 
devices, African drumming and absurdist humour, Ligeti used the 1970s to 
extend himself into areas of avant-garde performance and bizarre opera. A 
professor at Hamburg Music Academy from 1973, he had some heart trouble in 
the late 1970s but recovered to return to his assured multi-voiced style in the 
following decade. In the 1990s he was still living and writing in Hamburg and, 
full of bravado, had ambitions to incorporate Celtic, Arabic and fractal elements 
into his art. His theories and use of vertical sound colour have had a huge impact 
on the evolution of the Ambient music of Brian Eno and many others. 

LISTENING 

Though Pierre Boulez has recorded some sound Ligeti for Deutsche Grammo- 
phon, WERGO have recorded ten discs of his work of which the 1988 recording 
of Chamber Concerto , Ramifications , Lux Aeterna and Atmospheres is highly recom- 
mended. Still the best sonic experience of Ligeti’s music is the original soundtrack 
to 2001: A Space Odyssey , which was remastered by EMI in 1989. Here Kubrick’s 
electronic amplification of Requiem , Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna enhances both 
their fathomless depth and emotional impact. The disc also includes the serene 
slow movement from Armenian composer Khachaturian’s Gayaneh (also know as 
Gayane) ballet suite (1943), whose spatial Romantic strings Kubrick chose to 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


65 


accompany the fascinating opening shots of the spaceship Discovery. In 1996 
Rhino reissued the soundtrack in a lavish edition containing extended versions of 
Ligeti’s music. Late in 2000 Teldec Classics inaugurated The Ligeti Project, a series 
of completist CDs, to be released before the composer’s eightieth birthday. Of 
note is Volume II (2002) by the Berlin Philharmonic whose readings of Apparitions 
and Atmospheres are rich and inspired. 


PIERRE BOULEZ 

In the 1950s Pierre Boulez became famous as the enfant terrible of twentieth- 
century French music when he broke with the legacies of Debussy, Stravinsky 
and Schoenberg to create music that was in essence a violent homage to Anton 
Webern. Boulez was interested not only in total Serialism (the complete control 
of all aspects of music) but also in expanding this to electronic and concrete 
music. In 1951, like his contemporaries Stockhausen and Ligeti, he wanted to 
start again from a blank page, a year zero where everything could be reinvented. 
In so doing he embraced electronics and pushed their use way beyond what 
anyone had done before in his country. 

Born in southern France in 1925, Boulez attended the Paris Conservatoire and 
learned much from Olivier Messiaen in his teens. In his early twenties he worked 
in music theatre and his first two piano sonatas, written around this time, are 
marked by a rare intensity of expression. Fie was an champion of the Ondes 
Martenot, for which he wrote a Quartet and the piece The Wedding Visage (both 
1946). During the early 1950s he was heavily involved in the Darmstadt new 
music scene and corresponded much with Stockhausen. In fact he introduced the 
young German to Schaeffer’s Club d’Essai studio in Paris where both composers 
experimented with early electronica. In 1952 Boulez produced two Studies which 
explored the possibilities of tape and the qualities of individual sounds. Unlike 
Stockhausen, he hated the idea of John Cage’s chance operations even if aleatory 
(random) threads of sound and silences did creep into his music of the time. 

In his search for a totally ‘objective’ and ‘pre-determined music’, Boulez saw 
most pre-Serial music as unimportant. The extreme economy of Anton Webern 
was his beacon and anybody who didn’t want to follow his lead was second-rate. A 
dedicated teacher in the late 1950s, he also composed at WDR’s electronic studio, 
although he later withdrew a 1958 piece, Poetry For Power, for taped electronics and 
orchestra. In the late 1950s and early 60s Boulez conducted some of Stockhausen’s 
works and in the latter decade he experimented with electric guitar sound and 
Oriental ideas (inherited from Debussy via Messiaen) but spent much time at odds 
with French administrators over the direction of electronic music. 

His keen interest in mathematics made him want to achieve pure sounds, a 
‘new musical language’ through technology which could lead to ‘undreamed of 
territories’. President Pompidou offered Boulez generous funding for the 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


construction of a huge underground sound lab in 1970. Within seven years 
IRCAM was up and running. In 1971, during its building, Boulez wrote . . . 
explosante fixe ...(.. .fixed explosion . . .) for eight instruments and flute. 
Dedicated to the Surrealist Andre Breton, the piece used electronic sound 
projection to change the sound textures of natural instruments. Boulez also used 
the period of IRCAM’s construction to conduct at the BBC in London and for 
five long years at the New York Philharmonic. From all accounts he was 
unstintingly radical, not bowing once to any traditionalist repertoire. 

When IRCAM opened in Paris 1977 it was heralded as a triumph of French 
modernism and state intervention in the arts. Its numerous rooms contained 
state-of-the-art computer technology, an array of flexible studios, recording 
locations and equipment maintained by teams of assistants and engineers. Its 
stately dive’ room could be adjusted for any type of music. Boulez then wrote an 
ambitious sound-filled piece called Repons (Response) which combined main- 
frame computer, electronics and chamber orchestra. Though IRCAM attracted 
the likes of Stockhausen as a solution centre for acoustic and electronic problems 
which arose with such large-scale works as his opera cycle Licht, it didn’t take off 
the way Boulez hoped, a problem made more manifest by the speedy 
miniaturization and growing cheapness of Japanese music technology. Never- 
theless this period produced Boulez’s most radical collaboration when in 1984 
the American rock anarchist Frank Zappa came to IRCAM to record The Perfect 
Stranger (Rykodisc), a send-up of early twentieth- century music which Boulez 
hauled around the orchestral circuit to positive acclaim. 

In the 1990s Boulez resigned from the complex administrative duties of 
IRCAM and resumed his other career as conductor. A painstaking critic of his 
own and other people’s music, a constant revisionist of his own texts, Boulez 
nevertheless placed the spotlight on the importance of the availability and use of 
electronic resources in the evolution of modem music. 

LISTENING 

Most of Boulez’s music lies outside the scope of this book. His work is famous 
for its difficulty and includes pieces like the 1946 Sonatine For Flute And Piano 
which have a beautiful timbral quality. The disc with Sophie Cherrier playing 
flute (ERATO 1991) also contains the interesting . . . explosante-fixe 
fixed explosion . . .), for ‘computer- transformed flutes and chamber orchestra’. 
His third Piano Sonata from 1957 (WERGO 1985) contains Ambient elements. 


IANNIS XENAKIS 


The most famous Greek composer of the twentieth century, Xenakis rose to 
prominence in the post-war electronic boom. Trained as an architect, he 



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became renowned for his firm grasp of environmental structures and how they 
related to sound. Many cite his use of statistics and computers as significant 
when, after the war, he composed electronic music at the Club d’Essai and 
IRCAM, but it is in his use of nature - light, rain, wind and outdoor locations - 
that his Ambient credentials can be seen. 

Iannis Xenakis was born into affluence in Romania in 1922 and lived there 
with his Greek family until they moved to Athens when he was ten. Two years 
later he was studying music but opted for engineering and architecture studies at 
Athens Polytechnic after he left boarding school. The rise of Nazism brought 
out a rebellious spirit in him, as in many others, and running street battles during 
the war led to severe facial injury from a bomb blast. When the British 
administered Athens after the Second World War he was vigorous in the 
Greek resistance and ended up in prison and condemned to death as a terrorist. 
Luckily he escaped in 1947 and on a false passport fled to Paris. The use of huge 
floodlights in his later open-air pieces is directly related to his war-time 
experiences. 

He quickly found himself a job as an assistant in the Paris offices of the famous 
architect Le Corbusier. He would hold on to this post until 1960. In 1950, 
however, he began attending Olivier Messiaen’s composition classes at the Paris 
Conservatoire and in 1952 wrote a paper on ‘The Crisis Of Serial Music’. In 
1958 he collaborated with Varese on making music for the Philips pavilion at 
the Brussels World Fair. He helped design its pointed spires and wrote Concret 
PH for the space where burning charcoal sounds were ordered using the laws of 
probability. 

The rise of computers would help Xenakis master his ‘stochastic music’ whereby 
notes and other information would be fed into a programme that would align them 
inapre-determinedbut open way. Thes e Analogies For Instruments And Tape (1959) 
he saw as an answer to Cage’s wide-open music based on chance operations. After 
he left Le Corbusier, Xenakis worked intensively writing concrete music and 
regularly used the IBM 7090 computer to generate his pieces. In 1965 he became a 
French citizen. Within a year he had founded the Centre for Automatic and 
Mathematical Music in Paris and between 1 967 and 1 972 a similar locus of activity 
at Indiana University in the US. 

During the 1970s Xenakis involved himself in sound and light environments 
which used pre-recorded taped compositions. Hibiki-Hana-Ma for 800 speakers 
and twelve tapes (1970), Persepolis (1971), performed amid ancient Persian ruins, 
and Polytope Of Cluny (1972-4) were three examples of this adventurous spirit. 
Much small ensemble work was done with Boulez’s Intercontemporary En- 
semble and in the 1980s and 90s Xenakis wrote more for conventional acoustic 
instruments, ballet and chorus. An influential twentieth-century hero-figure, he 
has said that ‘architecture is a tragedy’. His real quest has been pursued through 
all forms of music and their impact on the spiritual plane of man. His fluid use of 
computers in the late 1950s and 60s certainly opened up their use for future 
Ambient musicians. 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


LISTENING 

With over 100 compositions to his credit, Xenakis’ music has been described as 
dense, dazzling, mythological — full of timbral variety and virtuosity. Some of it 
he has termed ‘symbolic music’. For our purposes two pieces are worth 
investigating — Nomos Alpha for solo cello, written in 1965 and recorded in 
Our Lady of Liban Church in Paris in 1990 (Erato 1992) under the composer’s 
supervision); and 1978’s Pleiades (Erato 1992), with its effect of droplets of rain 
within a percussion performance that evokes the gamelan of Indonesia. 


MORTON FELDMAN 

Often seen as the quiet man of American music, Morton Feldman created, 
through hushed stillness and subtle, delicate sounds, a body of work which 
provided an important bridge between Serialism and Minimalism, Impressionism 
and Ambience. A close friend of Edgard Varese, Feldman, bom in New York in 
1926, nevertheless drew his main inspiration from the Abstract Expressionist 
painters Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. 

Though he was well versed in piano, composition and mathematics and 
familiar with the musical miniatures of Anton Webern, Feldman sought an 
outlet for the more beautiful sounds he heard in his imagination. This outlet was 
to be provided in the late 1940s and early 50s when he joined David Tudor and 
other avant-garde musicians who gathered around John Cage. His early pieces 
experimented with graphic presentation and chance as much as the idea of 
innate stasis. Intermission B (1953) consisted of two pianists playing monophonic 
lines full of spaces. Two Pianos and Four Pianos (1957) played with the notion of 
lapsed time. 

In Feldman’s sound world all rhythmic and harmonic content was rejected 
for a sense of dissolution. Listening to a piece of Feldman music is akin to taking 
an eternal bath — after a while the idea of a beginning or an end just disappears. 
Sounds hover in space, slowly displaced by others. When writing for solo 
instmment or small collections of instruments, Feldman was intensely interested 
in the quality of the sound or timbre. There was a sense of drift but no real sense 
of dynamic. This was a music of immersion, its quiet repetition projecting a 
sense of unfurling discretion. 

After writing the spartan Rothko Chapel in 1973 (dedicated to the Russian- 
born Jewish painter’s posthumously built chapel in Houston displaying his 
drained canvases), Feldman said: ‘My primary concern is to sustain a flat surface 
with a minimum of contrast.’ Rothko Chapel is written for chorus, percussion 
and viola and the bulk of Feldman’s work is likewise scored for conventional 
instruments, though in strange combinations. His refined sense of sound had 
begun in the early 1950s with explorations in tone clusters, something he 



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returned to in the shifting quarter-notes of Triadic Memories in 1981. A long- 
time teacher at the State University of New York, Buffalo, Feldman was a placid 
individual whose economy of means and sense of tranquillity communicated a 
rare state of late twentieth-century contentment. He died in 1987, remembered 
by many. 

LISTENING 

Almost any Feldman disc will introduce his style of music. His love of soft-pedal 
piano can be heard on Pieces For More Than Two Hands and Triadic Memories , two 
discs on Sub Rosa from 1990 and 1991 recorded in Brussels by Jean-Luc 
Fafchamps and featuring compositions from the early 1950s to the early 1980s. 


MORTON SUBOTNICK 

One of the American West Coast’s great electronic pioneers, Morton Subotnick 
was bom in Los Angeles in 1933. He studied with Satie acolyte Darius Milhaud 
at Mills College in Oakland, California. Having seen the rise of the complex 
RCA synthesizer system in New York, he wanted to make electronics more 
accessible to actual played music. With this in mind he founded the San 
Francisco Tape Center in 1961 with Donald Buchla. 

Together with Ramon Sender and Pauline Oliveros, they developed the 
‘modular synthesizer’ — a machine which comprised manageable units that 
facilitated easy playability via touch-sensitive pads. What was more exciting 
about what Subotnick termed ‘electric music boxes’ was that they were capable 
of great flexibility. In traditional electronic music complicated tape looping was 
needed to build up a sequence of sounds, but here repeating sequences could be 
built up through an array of ‘boxes’. Moreover triggered sequences could be 
used to alter volume and both the quality and direction of sound. This modular 
approach made the modular synthesizer useful for live performance as well as 
creative studio experiment. 

Subotnick was an integral part of the 1960s, playing at New York’s Electric 
Circus, where light projections, film and other imaging devices were used to 
bolster his electronic music performances. His plethora of electrical gates, 
circuits and sequencers were first heard to impressive effect on Silver Apples 
Of The Moon (1967), a half-hour piece which derived its title from the Irish poet 
W. B. Yeats. Apples is famous as the first electronic creation specifically 
commissioned by a record company and exhibits all the idiosyncrasies of 
synthetic 1960s music. Blips and burps seem to roll around a giant aural blob, 
pushed forward by some manic alien hand. ‘Part Two’ was particularly exciting 
as looped sequences give a definite Techno sound years before Kraftwerk 
arrived on the scene. 



70 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Subotnick’s music was the kind of playful electronica which could be heard 
on paranoid American corporate or alien-invasion films of the 1960s and early 
1970s. The Wild Bull (1968) paints a bleaker picture, the heavier and in places 
scarier sounds used to convey an eerie poem from ancient Sumeria. Subotnick 
had a studio at New York University at the time and in 1969 became Director 
of Electronic Music at California Arts Institute. Silver Apples Of The Moon was his 
twenty-first composition; before this he had written for combinations of tape 
and acoustic instruments. Interestingly during the 1970s he wrote a piece called 
Elevator Music , which, installed in a New York building, ‘played itself’ when 
people operated the lifts. 

The composer has given successive electronic works colourful titles, like Four 
Butte flies or After The Butte fly - A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur. His 1985 recording 
for New Albion, Return (A Triumph Of Reason), was considered his most 
approachable work in years. It was a tribute to the return of Halley’s comet, 
written using the then new computerized Yamaha Music System. 

LISTENING 

Subotnick’s Silver Apples Of The Moon/ The Wild Bull (Wergo 1994) combines 
on CD two excellent LPs from the Nonesuch years, digitally remastered and 
remixed by ex-Tangerine Dream musician Michael Hoenig. 


WENDY CARLOS 

When her CBS album of classical electronic transcriptions Switched- On Bach was 
a million-seller in 1968, Wendy Carlos became one of the most famous 
electronic musicians in history. The album thrust the idea of the synthesizer 
as a musical instrument firmly into the public consciousness and kick-started the 
use of keyboard synthesizers in all types of popular music. Carlos also became 
the most famous transsexual composer in the genre, for Switched-On Bach was 
created when she was a man named Walter. Following its success, Walter 
became Wendy after an operation in 1972, a period which saw her begin to 
explore various parameters of Ambient music. 

Brought up in Rhode Island, where she was bom in 1939, Carlos showed 
huge gifts when she was a child. Already composing for piano at ten, she built a 
computer when only fourteen. She studied music and physics at Brown 
University and then advanced to the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Center 
and worked with the pioneering Vladimir Ussachevsky. There she wrote early 
tape pieces for acoustic instmments and electronics, displaying a great talent for 
shaping timbres or quality of sounds. Soon she was working alongside synthe- 
sizer pioneer Robert Moog on the development of a performance-related 
instmment. 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


71 


In 1967—8 she worked with producer Rachel Elkind on a series of 
electronic transcriptions of the baroque music of Bach. Using a modular 
Moog synthesiser made up of several units, she employed a monophonic 
keyboard system to painstakingly build tones. These were then stacked on tape 
to get precise notes, the rich sound giving a new clarity and brilliance to all of 
Bach’s original musical devices. Premiered at the Audio Engineering Society 
in New York in 1968, Carlos’s recordings of Bach’s Air On A G String with 
excerpts from the Brandenburg Concertos and various Preludes and Fugues were 
rapturously received. 

When CBS released the music as (to give the album its full title) Trans- 
Electronic Music Productions , Inc. Presents: Switched-On Bach in the same year, 
worldwide sales quickly topped one million. The famous Bach interpreter 
Glenn Gould proclaimed it £ the record of the decade’. The American media 
announced that the synthesizer had arrived as the new piano and many 
commentators were lured into misinterpretation, for few understood the sheer 
concentrative force of Carlos’s detailed tonal sculpting. The Well-Tempered 
Synthesizer , with its interpretations of Handel, Scarlatti and more Bach, followed 
in 1969. 

A more suitable use of Carlos’s gifts was the decision by American director 
Stanley Kubrick to employ her to write the music for his controversial film 
about violence and punishment, A Clockwork Orange, in 1971. Purcell, Rossini, 
Beethoven and Carlos’s own music were all given electronic treatment which 
suited the futuristic vision of the film’s creator. Soon after came Sonic Seasonings, 
a 1972 double album which featured a season per side — served up as an 
interweaving of concrete music, electronic sounds and pure Ambience. Having 
become a woman, Carlos now seemed more comfortable with self-expression 
than translation. 

She returned to the limelight in 1984 with eerie music for Kubrick’s nerve - 
tingler The Shining, while her 1984 Digital Moonscapes showed how far electronic 
sound had progressed when she used digital technology to authentically 
replicate acoustic instruments. The composer has always said that electronic 
instruments present the greatest possibilities for tuning and timing. Realizing 
that 1980s digital technology and sampling techniques would make her original 
1968 best-seller sound dated in the early 90s, she spent a massive 3,000 hours 
preparing Switched-On Bach 2000 in her New York loft. 

Here she developed the Moog and tape sounds of old and developed a series 
of authentic Bach tunings. Everything was played directly into an Apple 
Macintosh computer with no microphones used at all. The results were 
magnificent, giving Bach a sheen of electronic Ambience which was wholly 
advanced, as if classical music had finally caught up with technological progress. 
At the time of writing Carlos has worked on Ambient and Techno studies of 
music from A Clockwork Orange as well as electronic versions of early church 


music. 



72 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


LISTENING 

Switched- On Bach 2000 (Telarc 1992) is by far the definitive Carlos album. The 
use of Dolby Four-Track Surround Sound gives it an incredible depth and the 
album is a showcase of what such equipment as Kurzweill, Yamaha and Moog 
synthesizers can do when linked to modem computers, software and digital 
effects. The CD updates the original album with a nine-minute version of 
Bach’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor. Carlos’s own sleeve notes give an minutely 
detailed history of her electronic journey. 


TORU TAKEMITSU 

Towards the end of the century Japanese composer Tom Takemitsu reversed 
the process which Debussy and Ravel had begun nearly a century years earlier. 
He became prominent in the West as the Japanese inventor of a new type of 
Oriental classicism. His aerated and often still music, for unusual combinations 
of instmments and orchestra, was fluidly Western but from a determined Eastern 
perspective. 

Born in Tokyo in 1930 and indoctrinated with strong nationalistic values, 
Takemitsu grew up resenting Japanese culture. Hearing some French songs 
played on a record player by Japanese soldiers turned his attention to the West. 
After the Second World War he became an avid listener to US Army radio and 
was thrilled by the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Ravel and Debussy. He 
then listened to Stockhausen, Cage and Messiaen and took the jump into formal 
music. Completely self-taught, he moved himself away from a Japanese 
academic tradition which stressed formality above experimentalism. 

Takemitsu pushed for more resources to be poured into new music in Japan. 
During the 1950s he founded an innovation laboratory for electronic music and 
worked on several tape experiments which splashed light and colour into the 
often dense woods of concrete music. He also successfully pushed for a biennial 
celebration of new music titled Orchestral Space. He equalled Stockhausen at 
the 1970 Osaka World Fair by fitting out a concert hall with music, lasers and 
800 speakers and christening it ‘Space Theatre’. 

From the start Takemitsu’s music was one of both mobility and stasis, ably 
capturing the Serialism of Schoenberg and Webern but undertowing it with the 
melodic richness of Messiaen. Towards The Rainbow, Palma (1964) is an uncanny 
meeting between the American orchestral music of, say, Aaron Copland and the 
delicate quiet of an Oriental sensibility, particularly in the guitar parts. Music For 
Trees (1961) absorbed much from John Cage, as did Eclipse (1966), which 
emphasized the Japanese lute and shakuhachi. Takemitsu broke into the West 
with November Steps (1967), which combined these instruments with orchestra 
in a very languid style. 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


73 


From there Takemitsu’s floating Ambient imagination produced a slew of 
works which all sounded as if they were hewn from the same tree, but were 
equally individual and pleasing to the ear. In 1974 he began the Waterscape series, 
which revolved around rain, water and sea — the concept of endless flow and 
regeneration being at the heart of Takemitsu’s music. Evolving over many 
years, this cycle produced some minor masterpieces, including Raintree of 1981, 
where mallet instruments and finger cymbals blend exquisitely in a work 
designed to be performed in near darkness. Another part of the cycle, Rain 
Spell (1982), is a majestic voyage into shimmering silence as flute, clarinet, harp, 
piano and vibraphone appear and reappear in endless static variations. 

Takemitsu’s works are not long. Orchestral pieces like To The Edge Of Dream 
(1983) summon up great swells amid the peace and are direct descendants of 
Debussy. This disquiet in the realm of quiet could be a metaphor for twentieth- 
century music in general. Many of Takemitsu’s works recollect artists like Miro 
or, in the case of the two-movement orchestral Visions (1989), the luminous art 
of the French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon. His fascination with circulating 
water, the organic changes of gardens and quiet are thoroughly Eastern, though 
he has absorbed much from the West. 

At the end of the century Takemitsu became Japan’s most revered composer. 
Praised as a synthesist, he composed soundtracks most famously for Japanese 
director Kurosawa. But his relatively early death, in 1996 from cancer, robbed 
him of much of the fruits he was beginning to harvest in the West. Takemitsu’s 
aesthetic and themes have been taken up by David Sylvian and ably applied to 
the field of Ambient rock. 

LISTENING 

Riverrun * Waterways (Virgin Classics 1991), played by the London Sinfonietta 
under Oliver Knussen, is a great introduction to Takemitsu which includes Rain 
Coming and Rain Spell from the Waterscape series. Requiem * November Steps 
(Denon 1992) is a Japanese recording which features mostly orchestral music and 
includes the James Joyce-inspired Far Calls , Coming , Far! of 1980. The silken tone 
of Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen really brings Takemitsu to life on To The 
Edge Of Dream, two different discs released by Sony (1991 and 1993): one a 
complete cycle, the other an excellent compilation which places the music 
alongside that of Messiaen and Stravinsky. Also recommended is the superb The 
Film Music of Torn Takemitsu (Nonesuch 1997) on which John Adams conducts. 


KAMA SAARIAHO 

One of a new breed of Finnish composers who did much to break the staid 
Romantic traditions of the country in the 1980s, Kaija Saariaho was bom in 



74 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Helsinki in 1952. Together with the brilliant conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, she 
opened the country’s ears to the possibilities of electronic and tape music, 
possibilities which Boulez and Stockhausen had presented to the world decades 
before. 

A product of the Sibelius Academy in the Finnish capital, she moved to Paris 
during the 1980s and developed her electronic collage technique at IRCAM. 
There she met Stockhausen as he worked on Licht (Light) and was inspired. He 
would repay her the compliment when he visited Helsinki in 1989 to perform 
and mix music from his massive opera cycle. 

Saariaho’s speciality is an arresting mixture of acoustic and electronic sounds, 
taped actuality recordings and radically transformed instrumental tones, which 
all combine to communicate a fascinating geological mix. A clear lineage can be 
traced to Cage but there is a density to her work which is the opposite to the 
American’s Zen-filled sound spaces. After a trip to the US in 1988 she wrote a 
clutch of pieces, including Of Crystal and By Smoke , which combined orchestra 
and string quartet with the best electronic software available at IRCAM. Here 
singular sounds and instrumental timbres rise up in orchestral swells and then 
recede, seeming for all their modernity like electronic Impressionism. Maa , a 
ballet in seven scenes, combines pure tape noise and tribal percussion with harp, 
string quartet, synthesizer and electronics. The introductory section, ‘Journey’, 
is extraordinary: thematic archetypes reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of 
The Moon combine with a sense of travelling great distances. The incessant 
footfalls and continuously altered sonic backdrops (inspired by the composer’s 
Finnish homeland) culminate in a tour de force as the finale of electronic drones 
and real lapping waves imbue a sense of true serenity. 

LISTENING 

Saariaho is joined by old friend Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducting the Los Angeles 
Philharmonic, on an Ondine disc from 1993 featuring Of Crystal and By Smoke. 
The Kronos Quartet have their sound remixed at IRCAM and there’s even a 
poem from the late Russian film genius Andrei Tarkovsky. Maa , on an Ondine 
recording from 1992, presents Saariaho’s full sound-collage effect. 


ELECTRONIC MEDIA 

RECORDS 

Living in the digital age can obscure the fact that for well over 1 00 years records 
dominated the way music was heard. From the day Edison recorded his famous 
ditty ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ on to a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil in 1877 right 
up to the late 1980s, electrical vibrations produced by a needle tracing a groove 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


75 


profoundly shaped people’s musical experience. Divorced from its sound source 
and preserved, recorded music could be experienced over and over again, a 
feature that in time would create the necessary mindset for the arrival of 
electronic and Ambient music. Moreover records allowed composers such as 
Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, Percy Grainger and, most importantly, John 
Cage to explore new avenues in sound. And let’s not forget how records gave 
birth to the Ambient House and Techno music of the 1980 and 1990s. 

Surveying the history of records reveals a feverish wish for an ever-improving 
spectrum of sound evolved by people and enterprises both famous, like Edison, 
and obscure, like the London Stereoscopic Company or the Gramophone & 
Typewriter Company of London. Before records history is full of clockwork 
devices operated by a barrel and pin. Beethoven is reputed to have written 
something for a clockwork orchestra. Then there was the player piano, which 
Debussy was fond of. Composers could use it to record performances, which 
were captured in the form of holes pierced on a paper roll. This could then be 
used to replay the music using an air-pressure system which activated the 
instrument’s keys. Yet none of it came near true musical fidelity. 

Edison’s sonic invention was considered a miracle. Within a year of creating 
the Phonograph in 1877, he had established a company in New York and was 
sending salesmen all over America armed with blank tinfoil cylinders. In 
England Lord Tennyson recorded a poem in front of the Royal Institute 
and by 1879 Edison’s ‘Speaking Machine’ was available on both sides of the 
Atlantic (in the UK, from the London Stereoscopic Company). Yet it was a 
novelty of very poor quality. By 1885 Bell & Tainter in Washington had 
developed a wax cylinder of greater refinement titled a Graphophone. Edison 
retorted with his Improved Phonograph and in 1888 recorded a young boy 
playing a piano at his New Jersey laboratory. He even sent equipment replete 
with large sound-gathering horns over to the Crystal Palace in London to 
record a Handel festival. By the middle of the 1890s Charles Pathe in Paris had 
become world-famous for his cylinder recordings. 

When all this was happening an inventive German immigrant in Washington 
DC applied for a patent for his Gramophone. His name was Emile Berliner and 
he is the father of both records and Compact Discs. Berliner used a flat-disc 
‘electroforming’ technique to create a negative which could then print copies. 
In 1888 he gave a demonstration at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia using 
five-inch hard-rubber discs revolving at seventy revolutions per minute on a 
hand-cranked machine. He had indeed started a revolution. 

While Columbia in America were making money out of cylinders featuring 
snippets of popular song and opera (sold on a ‘return when worn out’ basis) 
Berliner headed for Germany to get manufacturing backing for his Gramo- 
phone. By 1891 his machines were available and in 1894 his Washington 
Gramophone Co. was selling an electric machine playing seven-inch discs. A 
huge breakthrough came with the invention of shellac in Newark in 1897, 
which allowed Berliner to make better-quality records. He opened a studio and 



76 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


a record shop in Philadelphia that same year and by 1898 had subsidiary 
companies in England, France and, in Germany, the famous Deutsche Gram- 
mophon. More importantly, in Flanover he set up a pressing plant for making 
innumerable copies from a copper cast. In 1900 ten-inch shellac discs arrived 
playing at 78rpm but they were still only single-sided, with a playing time of 
four and a half minutes, and easily breakable. 

The early part of the twentieth century was a frenetic period for the recording 
industry. Berliner had acquired from the His Master’s Voice company rights to 
the legendary painting of a dog listening to a Gramophone. This image would 
become standard on Gramophone records and the name His Master’s Voice 
(HMV) synonymous with record production in the UK. His company, which 
became Victor in the US, would famously record Caruso in Milan and, in 1903, 
Debussy. Up until then records had been seen as novelties, as evinced by the 
popularity in the US of the nickelodeon, an early form of jukebox. Victor wanted 
to record classical music, while Columbia went the more popular 
route. The twelve-inch record arrived in 1903 and in 1904 the double-sided disc. 

Though original masters were still recorded crudely with a hom, the 
popularity of records rocketed five times in the US during the First World 
War, mainly as a result of the Dixieland jazz boom. In the UK in 1914, HMV 
released eight single-sided 78s of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony , performed in 
Berlin, the first complete classical recording. They fitted into a box or ‘album’ 
which opened out accordion-style to allow access. Hence the word ‘album’ 
became associated with serious music and would reverberate down through the 
century. The same year Decca launched a ‘portable’ Gramophone. 

In 1917 Victor signed Leopold Stokowski and his Philadelphia Orchestra to 
its Red Label, thus embracing a conductor who was a staunch supporter of new 
and electronic music. De Forest’s pioneering work with the valve led to the 
appearance of microphone recording and valve amplification in the mid-1920s. 
The Brunswick Panatrope, made in Iowa in 1925, substituted a loudspeaker for 
the usual horn, while HMV’s Concert Gramophone of 1927 boasted an 
electromagnetic pick-up. A Tasmanian, Eric Waterworth, tried to float the 
idea of an automatic record-changer, but the concept didn’t take off until 1928 
with HMV’s Automatic Gramophone. By the end of the twenties HMV had 
also successfully marketed the idea of a Radiogram (a combined radio and 
record player designed as a piece of furniture) , a product which was still popular 
in the 1970s. 

At the same time the record industry as we know it began to take shape. The 
Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought Victor in 1929. In 1931 both 
Columbia and Gramophone in the UK merged to become Electric and Musical 
Instruments Ltd, better known as EMI, dragging in all European firms except the 
fiercely independent Deutsche Grammophon and its sub-label Polydor. But the 
most important development of the time was RCA Victor’s revelatory launch of 
33^ rpm records featuring a continuous Beethoven’s Fifth conducted by Sto- 
kowski. Players for the new long-play records were priced at between $250 and 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


77 


$1,000. This innovation and a revolutionary stereo miking system developed by 
Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932, again featuring recordings by Stokowski, 
both failed owing to the collapse of the record industry around this time. 

But even though advances in recording fidelity would not pick up until after 
the Second World War, records were undoubtedly having an affect on musical 
creation. The French composer and former Satie acolyte Darius Milhaud used 
records to experiment with vocal and pitch transformations in the 1920s. 
Between 1929 and 1930 Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch worked on new 
acoustical and harmonic ideas utilizing records at the Experimental Radio 
Centre of the Berlin Music Academy. The eccentric Australian composer Percy 
Grainger used them as sound sources in the 1930s. During the same period the 
Hungarian painter, photographer and composer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, along 
with his colleagues at Germany’s Bauhaus school of art and design, attempted 
radical sound transformations with records. By playing records backwards (fifty 
or more years before House and Rap DJs) and other means, Moholy-Nagy 
aimed to alter the way sounds were generated as well as get to the heart of 
exactly what sound itself was. The closure of the Bauhaus by the Nazis in 1933 
put an end to his explorations. It fell to John Cage to put the sound-altering 
power of turntables and records on the map when, in 1939, his Imaginary 
Landscape 1 (using RCA test-frequency recordings) suavely demonstrated that 
the sonic landscape had changed for all time. 

While the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) had become a giant in 
America, shellac as a medium for records was ditched in 1 943 for a more durable 
synthetic plastic. Between 1944 and 1946 Decca introduced High-Fidelity, 
both in terms of the record player’s output and the wider dynamic character of 
the Tull frequency range recording’ (ffrr) system. But the watershed came in 

1948 with the unveiling of Dr Peter Goldmark’s 33| rpm twelve-inch vinyl 
‘microgroove’ record in Atlantic City at a meeting of Columbia executives. 
Using a new form of micro-stylus, the records had 200—300 grooves per inch 
and could hold up to twenty-five minutes of music per side. Until then 78s 
could only hold five minutes per side. Moreover the new records were nearly 
unbreakable. They could be played on conventional equipment with an 
attachment and cost a reasonable $5 apiece. In effect Goldmark consigned 
all previous record formats to the dustbin. RCA Victor quickly followed in 

1949 with the seven-inch microgroove record, which could hold as much as an 
old 78. Extended Play 33^ rpm seven-inch records, or EPs, were the logical next 
step. 

The accessibility of tape and cheap manufacturing costs brought about a 
record boom in the 1950s. All forms of music soared in popularity as older 
buyers replaced 78s and younger teenagers discovered rock and roll. In 1957 in 
Connecticut, Emory Cook came up with a double-pick-up stereophonic 
system for playing new records with two separate grooves, one for each channel 
of the stereo field. The idea failed. The following year Audio -Fidelity success- 
fully solved the stereo problem by introducing a single groove with forty-five- 



78 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


degree walls to be played by a double-sided stylus. Initially companies like 
Decca prided themselves on being able to record whole Wagner operas in 
stereo, packaged in huge boxed sets, but in the 1960s advances in recording 
fidelity made by groups such as The Beach Boys in the US and The Beatles in 
the UK turned stereo records into a popular art form. 

Having established a standard, the record industry settled down to a period of 
consolidation. During the early 1970s the idea of quadraphonic, or four- 
channel, records was mooted. Columbia had SQ, RCA had Quadradisc 
and, in Japan, the interestingly titled CD-4. High-fidelity groups like Pink 
Floyd had the concept foisted on them but it didn’t take off, even though 
Ambient and electronic composers had been using multi-speaker systems for 
years. The seeming balance of two speakers for two ears was enough for average 
music-lover. 

Records in the 1970s became more elaborately packaged, particularly in rock 
music, where the double or even triple gatefold sleeve was de rigueur for a few 
years. As a form of entertainment the twin turntable of the discotheque, playing 
twelve-inch 45rpm dance records by the likes of Donna Summer, became an 
international sensation. Innovations in records themselves became advances in 
fidelity. Direct Metal Master Cuts were a very popular form of record, and then 
Denon in Japan pioneered the Digital recording system to radically increase the 
dynamic range. Telarc in the US and other companies led the market in 
superior-sounding but more expensive records. By the early 1980s Audiophile 
Digital standards were the norm for most major classical releases. 

In 1982 Compact Cassettes sold more than vinyl records in the US for the 
first time. In the UK the Compact Disc, or CD, overtook vinyl record sales in 
1989. Accounting for only about ten per cent of the market in the 1990s, 
records were considered outmoded after 100 fruitful years of music reproduc- 
tion. The oscillations of a moving magnet that created a voltage and hence a 
sound didn’t seem romantic any more in the face of shiny, laser-etched discs. 
But it was through records that a new music was born in America when the 
breakbeat was invented in New York in the early 1980s using turntable ‘scratch’ 
and ‘mix’ techniques. The age of Hip-Hop, House and the DJ arrived in the late 
1980s and by the 1990s the record was firmly rehabilitated as a medium for 
radical new music mixed live. And it was through DJs mixing old records that 
Ambient House was born in the UK. This in itself broadened the experience of 
listening and allowed a reappraisal both of what actually constituted music and 
of the substantial sonic legacy of records themselves. 


MAGNETIC TAPE 

If one could point to the single greatest invention of the twentieth century in 
electronic music it would have to be magnetic tape. As a flexible carrier of 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


79 


sound, tape opened up whole new vistas, not only in the transmission of music 
but in its very innovation. As soon as tape technology was up and running in the 
late 1940s and early 1950s, Cage, Varese, Schaeffer and Stockhausen eagerly 
pounced on it to create what had hitherto been only dreamed of Tape shaped 
and invigorated the development of electronic and Ambient music in a myriad 
of ways. Not least in the studio, where the growing sophistication of multi-track 
recording led in the 1960s and 70s to the creative zenith of the rock era. Also 
important was the impact of tape technology on Minimalism and, of course, 
Brian Eno, whose early dronal music came directly from tape loops. 

The arrival of plastic tape coated with ferric (iron) particles capable of being 
magnetized so as to hold sound followed a long and circuitous journey. It all 
began with Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish engineer who worked for the 
Copenhagen Telephone Company. He found that he could store electrical 
information by magnetizing a steel wire. Demonstrated at the Paris Exposition 
of 1900, his Telegraphone used an electromagnet and piano wire that passed 
through the device at seven feet per second. The Telegraphone was taken up by 
a firm in Massachusetts in 1903 with the aim of developing it as a dictation and 
telephone-answering device. Yet it was cumbersome and of poor sound quality 
because of its lack of amplification. Unsurprisingly, the enterprise failed. Lee De 
Forest modified the Telegraphone in 1913 for film experiments he was doing in 
New York, but the machine would never take off because it was basically a 
good idea out of context, without suitable technical support. 

De Forest was way ahead of everybody in developing a system as early as 1923 
for transforming sound into light pulses which, using a photoelectric cell, could 
be converted back into sound. But in Germany too decisive steps were being 
taken. Kurt Stille had developed a recording machine which used magnetic steel 
tape, primarily for use in film. This was bought in 1929 by Louis Blattner for 
synchronizing film sound at Elstree Studios in the UK but was also marketed as 
the Blattnerphone. In the same year another German scientist, Fritz Pfluemer, 
began developing a magnetic coating for plastic tape. 

Real changes occurred when the Marconi company bought up the rights to 
the Blattnerphone in 1931, made refinements and marketed the device as the 
famous Marconi-Stille Recorder. Several were bought by the BBC and 
photographs show giant contraptions with huge sprocketed spools arranged 
vertically. Though erasure was possible, the ‘tape’ consisted of razor steel 
travelling at sixty inches per second. Splicing could only be done by welding 
two pieces of steel together. If the ‘tape’ spun off it was extremely dangerous 
and could result in serious injury, such as loss of a limb. Something else had to be 
found. 

Pfluemer’s experiments with plastic-coated tape resulted in the invention of 
the Dictaphone in 1935. This idea was taken up by AEG in Berlin, who 
developed it as the Magnetophon in the same year. This was the breakthrough 
that everybody had anticipated — a more compact system using a much more 
flexible oxide-coated tape which was easily reusable and could hold a number of 



80 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


tracks simultaneously. Improvements were made up to the beginning of the 
Second World War and it is believed that by the 1940s the Germans had a 
machine as advanced as anything produced in the UK or US in the 1960s. 

There are records of an Ozaphone tape device being produced in the UK 
around 1 937 but nothing more was heard of it. Certainly the Magnecord was 
the first stereo tape device invented. Primarily for use by engine-testers at 
General Motors, it was demonstrated in Chicago in 1949 and marketed in New 
York in 1954 to consumers as the Audiosphere, along with seven-inch tape 
reels. 

Though music, both mono and stereo, was available in limited quantities to 
consumers in the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1958 that real portability arrived with 
the unveiling of the Cassette Tape recorder by RCA Victor in the US. This 
was still a reel-to-reel device but now used two four-inch spools of half-inch 
tape. Playing time was only twenty-three minutes but it was versatile. In 
Holland, Philips was busy investigating the idea of a miniature tape cassette, 
and the result was the Compact Cassette, unveiled in 1964 with a tape width 
of 3.8mm (0.15 inch). This was a revolutionary sound carrier and in itself 
propelled the growth of the music business to immense proportions. Mean- 
while an American physicist named Ray Dolby had long been investigating a 
way to reduce the immense hiss of ferric tape. In the late 1960s he came up 
with Dolby A, and in the early 1970s Dolby B, which became a standard. 
These innovations were instrumental in increasing the fidelity of both 
produced and recorded music. 

Consumer products came and went, like Grundig’s DC Cassette from the 
early 1960s, the infamous Motorola eight-track cartridge and Sony’s 1976 
Elcaset tape, but then these were nothing more than gimmicks. The Compact 
Cassette would lodge itself in the marketplace as the best carrier of music. 
Improvements were made, including high-quality chromium-dioxide and 
‘metal’ tape in the 1970s and 80s, but the basic design would stay the same. 
The format’s biggest boost came in 1979 when the chairman of Sony in Japan, 
Masura Ibuka, invented a lightweight portable tape player to satisfy the demands 
of teenagers who were constantly annoying their parents with loud music. 
Initially called the Stowaway in the UK and the Soundabout in the US, it 
became the Walkman in 1980. Twelve years later sixty million of them had 
been sold worldwide. Over the same period annual global sales of cassette 
players were around 200 million and of cassettes a staggering two and a half 
billion. 

In the 1980s and 90s Dolby C and Dolby S refined the sound of tape, which 
was facing increased competition from digital sources. One such source was 
Digital Audio Tape (DAT), a method of storing information on magnetic tape 
which avoided hiss and sound variance. Originated by Sony and Mitsubishi as a 
studio medium in the late 1970s, Sony’s DAT machines really came into their 
own in 1987 and by 1990 a Walkman version was an industry standard. Yet 
DAT’s relatively high cost made it the preserve of musicians and professionals, 



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81 


with such companies as Alesis, Fostex and Tascam cleaning up the market for 
multi-track DAT ‘portastudios’ by the mid-1990s. 


KEYBOARDS, SYNTHESIZERS AND COMPUTERS 


What made electronic and Ambient music more ubiquitous in the late 
twentieth century was the increasing accessibility of equipment which could 
‘organize’ sound. Another word for this idea was to ‘synthesize’ sound. The 
search for an instrument which could create, by synthesis, a variety of timbres 
and put them together like an ensemble was to preoccupy inventors and 
musicians alike for more than 100 years. 

A dip into history shows how much work had to be done. The concept of 
electromagnetism seems to have dominated the first half of the nineteenth 
century with Michael Faraday leading the field in the development of electrical 
transformers by 1831. Soon it was observed that variations in electromagnetic 
circuits could be used to sustain sound and in Germany as early as the 1850s 
researchers were already working on the idea of speech synthesis using tuning 
forks. Attention was focused on communication and during the 1860s the idea 
of the musical telegraph, one which used keyboards, was in vogue. One of the 
earliest ‘synthesizers’ could be said to be Elisha Gray’s 1876 instrument, which 
used steel reeds and electromagnets, but this was designed for Morse code rather 
than musical reproduction. 

A more significant breakthrough was the player piano, first developed in 1850 
but refined by the Swiss Matthaus Hipp in 1867. Its ingenious use of a 
perforated paper roll which acted on the instrument’s hammers made it the 
first digital recording device. The player piano became very popular among 
composers, particularly Debussy. Once a perfect performance of a piece was 
executed, it was there on paper for ever. Refinements of this idea led to the 
German Reproducing Piano of 1904, which was taken up by the Aeolian 
Company in the US in 1913. Aeolian marketed it as the Duo-Art, which by 
1925 had generated sales worth $59 million, its clever use of electric motor and 
electrical contacts and air pressure for each key making it one of the most 
accurate digital encoding instruments ever built. Though the depression and the 
rise of the record effectively killed off the Duo-Art, the survival of piano rolls, 
notably those played by Percy Grainger and Artur Rubinstein, saw the return of 
the instrument in recordings by the Nimbus label in the 1990s. 

Looking back in time, one can observe dozens of inventions which con- 
tributed to the rise of ‘synthetic sound’. As early as 1851 the Englishman Henry 
Gauntlett wished to patent a control device which could be linked to a series of 
organs and make them all play at the Great Exhibition of that year. It never 
happened, but the idea was a century ahead of its time. Pechard’s electro- 
acoustic organ of 1868 was the first of its kind and patented in France in that 



82 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


year. In the mid- 1880s both Boyle in England and Lorenz in Frankfurt patented 
instruments which used electromagnetism to create sound. Lorenz is indis- 
putably credited with devising the first ‘electric piano’, though lacking loud- 
speakers it was of limited popularity. By the early 1890s in London and Berlin 
refinements had been made to make the electric piano a future reality. Near the 
end of the century there existed in Europe isolated inventions which used 
keyboards to trigger other instruments. But real progress would begin in the 
twentieth century. 

Thaddeus Cahill would begin the century with his unwieldy Telharmonium, 
which used an array of keyboards and required two players. Lee De Forest, the 
inventor of the valve and amplifier, actually worked on an electronic keyboard 
system in 1915 called the Audion Piano. Its use of oscillator frequency 
interactions would influence electronic instrument design such as that of the 
Theremin and Ondes Martenot in the 1920s. Significant to the development of 
‘sound synthesis’ was the work of Armand Givelet, a French radio engineer at 
the Eiffel Tower who applied De Forest’s ideas to a series of instruments in the 
late 1920s. These included a radio-electric piano, an electric organ and, most 
importantly, a fully programmable music machine which used paper tape to 
activate electrical circuits and was unveiled at the Paris Exhibition of 1929. 
Essentially the first synthesizer, this gave more control over the shape and quality 
of musical notes than any previous device. 

A parallel development was ‘optical synthesis’. Again this was a product of the 
genius of De Forest, who had shown as early as 1923 that sound waves could be 
transformed into light impulses which, when recorded on strips of film and then 
passed over a photoelectric cell, could generate sound voltages. Of obvious 
import for the motion-picture sound industry, it also was adapted by various 
inventors to facilitate sound synthesis. Members of the Bauhaus experimented 
with ‘optical’ sound techniques in the 1930s, but it was the German Rudolf 
Pfenninger who first outlined the real value of synthesizing a range of musical 
tones from optical sources. He saw that the physical nature of the source, and the 
use of shading, could greatly affect the musical outcome. In Ottawa Norman 
McLaren experimented with this idea. So too did Percy Grainger in the 
dissemination of his ‘Free Music’ in the mid-1930s. There was also the work 
of Daphne Oram in the UK. But it was in Russia that the greatest advances were 
made. 

There, in 1932, Yegeny Sholpo invented the Variaphone, a music machine 
which used imaging in the compositional process. This led to the famous ANS 
photoelectric optical sound synthesizer constructed by Yevgeny Murzin in the 
late 1950s. Sited in the Moscow Experimental Studio, this was a terrific advance 
and capable of great timbral delicacy. A collaboration between Murzin and 
Edward Artemyev, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatoire, would produce 
some of the most realistic synthesizer music ever. Some of it, used in the 
dreamlike films of Andrei Tarkovsky, was incredibly Ambient, particularly the 
soundtracks of Solaris (1972), Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979). Only in 1990 was 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


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this music available to people in the West (on the Torso Kino CD Solaris, Mirror, 
Stalker) as the Cold War had ruled out any cross-fertilization. 

In the West, it was Laurens Hammond who was to make a big impact. 
At the age of forty Hammond revolutionized the perception of the 
organ by mass-producing it. His tone-wheeled electric version, powered 
by his own electric motor, went on sale in 1935. Within three years 
he had sold 5,000. In 1940 he devised a Solovox, a monophonic device 
which could generate chords to go with single-handed piano playing. This 
chordal idea was applied to the Hammond organ of the 1950s, the fully 
electronic B3, which was of a more compact design and used a Leslie 
speaker system to throw out its thick, cheesy sound. Melody and accompani- 
ment were combined in a single instrument which had a three-octave range 
with ninety-six chord buttons. Other companies, including Allen, Farfisa, 
Wurlitzer and Lowry, would challenge Hammond in the marketplace but his 
organ has gone down in history for its sound, enhanced by drawbars and 
volume pedal. It became a favourite with rock and pop musicians of the 1950s 
and 60s. 

The Hammond organ was bulky, but the growth of miniaturization would 
lead to smaller and smaller instruments. Farfisa and Vox Continental organs 
became popular in the 1960s, while Hohner in Germany and Casio in Japan 
kept refining their organs to achieve greater compactness. Notable for its 
novelty value, the Stylophone mini-monophonic organ was popularized by 
Rolf Harris in the early 1970s, and by 1982 the Japanese Casiotone VL-5 and 
other tiny organs had replaced the need for large machines. One other early 
keyboard which bridged the gap between the electronic organ and the 
synthesizer deserves mentioning. The Mellotron, the brainchild of the Amer- 
ican Bill Fransen and two Birmingham brothers, was the first ‘sampling’ 
instrument. Its name derived from the merger of the words melody and 
electronic. This keyboard instrument used tapes and magnetic heads to replay 
instrumental ‘samples’. Primarily invented in 1962, it was followed in 1964 by 
the Mark 2, which was even heavier than a Hammond organ. It had two thirty- 
five-note keyboards, but each note had three different sounds. Volume, speed 
and reverberation could be changed and sounds combined. Despite difficulties 
with the tape mechanisms, this became a very popular instrument, its most 
famous use being on The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Refinements 
were made, the Mellotron reaching its peak in the mid-1970s with the Mark 5, 
a double-keyboard version weighing 300 pounds and favoured by progressive 
rock musicians such as Rick Wakeman. Though monophonic, the Mellotron 
gave a definitive electronic sound, particularly in the 70s music of the German 
group Tangerine Dream. 

The tributaries which lead to the rise of sound synthesis are manifold and 
complex. Soon after the Second World War studios began to be established 
around the world to further this aim: the Club d’Essai in Paris (1948), the 
Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York (1951), WDR 



84 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Cologne (1951), Japanese Radio, Tokyo (1953), Italian Radio, Milan (1953), 
Philips in Eindhoven (1956), Siemens in Munich (1957), Polish Radio, Warsaw 
(1957), the Brussels Studio (1958), Toronto University (1959), the San Fran- 
cisco Tape Center (1961), the Sonology Institute, Utrecht (1961), the Electro 
and Psychoacoustic Studio in Ghent (1962) and IRCAM in Paris (1977). All of 
these studios were used by the illustrious electronic composers of the century. 
Those at Ghent and Brussels attracted the Belgian electronic composer Henri 
Pousseur, who stated in 1970 that all old music was dead. The Milan studio was 
the brainchild of the Italian composers Bruno Madema and Luciano Berio, 
whose main interest was the facility of multi-media performance-related 
electronic pieces. In these sites the equipment was broken up into the substantial 
components which generated, shaped and amplified sounds and the tape 
machines which recorded them. They looked like laboratories. By contrast, 
the ‘synthesizer’ would compact the equipment and allow composers and 
musicians much more control over the music they were creating. 

Of enormous significance was the invention of the transistor in 1948. Silicon 
crystals were used during the war in the refinement of radar, but once peace 
returned Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley would use them in the development 
of the triode at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. Renamed the 
transistor, the triode was an effective replacement for De Forest’s valve and was 
small, easily managed and almost unbreakable. Its existence led to the devel- 
opment of complex circuits, the lifeblood of any synthesizer. Early versions of 
the synthesizer were developed by Hugh Le Caine, Harald Bode and Paolo 
Ketoff. Le Caine’s Sackbutt was developed in Ottawa between 1945 and 1948 
and was a refinement of earlier instruments; to a touch-sensitive keyboard and a 
glide strip it added a new pitch-bending facility and voltage control. Bode’s 
Melochord was an American device with two keyboards for controlling studio 
generators and modulators. Ketoff developed his Fonosynth and Synket (with 
its three touch-sensitive keyboards) in Rome. All these devices were to fade 
with the arrival of the Moog. 

Robert Moog (rhymes with ‘vogue’) was to revolutionize the synthesizer. 
Born in 1934, he studied engineering at Cornell University, where he financed 
himself by selling self-assembly Theremins in his spare time. During the 1950s 
Moog had helped the eccentric musician and equipment inventor Raymond 
Scott to build a series of devices at the latter’s home on Long Island. One was a 
three-octave keyboard version of the Theremin called the Clavivox, which had 
portamento, vibrato and touch-sensitivity. Moog considered it a proto-synthe- 
sizer. More importantly, he supplied parts for Scott’s enormous electro- 
mechanical sequencer the Electronium, which looked like an old telephone 
switchboard and could, by the early 1960s, produce rhythms, melodies and 
timbres. Scott credited Moog with coming up with the word ‘sequencer’, even 
though Moog attributes the actual invention of the device to Donald Buchla. 

In 1963 Moog met a lecturer, Herb Deutsch, at an electronics conference in 
New York. Both saw the need to apply the recently invented integrated circuits 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


85 


of transistors to synthesizers. At that time the RCA synthesizer developed by 
Harry Olson and Herb Belar in the mid 1950s was the most advanced model 
available. Installed in the studio of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music 
Center, it could generate four musical tones simultaneously, various tone 
colours and other sound characteristics. Everything was communicated through 
binary (two-digit) code via typewriters attached to the huge synthesizer. 
Capable of producing one notation every 1/30 second, it was the fastest 
synthesizer available, but wholly inaccessible to the public. 

Beginning life in 1964, the Moog Modular System was the first great 
analogue synthesizer. This was made up of various boxes controlled by a 
keyboard. Timbres were built up by the subtraction or filtering of unwanted 
harmonics from a sound waveform. The quality of these sounds was determined 
by linking various modules with wire cords. A customised version was used by 
Wendy Carlos to stunning success on 1968’s Switched-On Bach. Though 
monophonic, the instrument became extremely popular, so much so that 
Moog built a portable unit for live performance. Enter the MiniMoog of 
1970, one of the all-time classic synthesizers with its pop-up knobs featuring 
controllers, oscillator bank, mixer and modifier. Its pitch-bend wheels would 
become an industry standard. 

Another popular synthesizer of the era was the EMS VCS3, originally called 
the Putney — named after the early London base of Peter Zinovieff, the Russian 
founder of EMS, or Electronic Music Studios. Conceived by Zinovieff and 
designer David Cockerell, the VCS3 (short for Voltage Controlled Studio No. 
3) looked like something out of Star Trek with its L-shaped cabinet featuring an 
array of coloured knobs and a flat console with a sixteen-by-sixteen pin matrix 
for connecting its internal modules and a funny-looking joystick. Its strange 
image has fascinated musicians ever since it first went on sale in 1969. Along 
with its patch bay, oscillators and envelope shaper came a reverb unit. Then 
Zinovieff and Cockerell added a small keyboard called the DK2. Instantly 
successful, the VCS3 was used by every ‘progressive’ rock group of the era, from 
King Crimson to Yes. In 1971 EMS came up with a suitcase version called the 
Synthi A (at one time known as the Portabella) — a veritable laptop device, this 
was used to devastating effect by Pink Floyd on Dark Side Of The Moon. The 
addition of a two-and-a-half-octave touch-sensitive keyboard (which included 
a digital sequencer) produced the Synthi AKS - a completely portable playable 
synthesizer. Brian Eno was a famous VCS3 user during the early 1970s and even 
played the ultra-rare VCS4 large performance model. 

By the mid-1970s EMS was concentrating on big synthesizers like the Synthi 
100, but it was the VCS3 in all its guises — loved by everyone from The Stones, 
to Jean-Michel Jarre, to the Ambient and Techno boffins of the 1990s — which 
was destined to become a classic. 

Switches took over from wire connectors in new early- 1970s synthesizers 
from ARP, whose Odyssey and 2600 became popular. New names like Japan’s 
Roland and the US’s Oberheim would come on the market but the digital era 



86 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


had arrived to come up alongside the analogue synthesizer. The combination of 
transistor and circuit in the microprocessor using silicon chips would allow far 
more information to be stored in synthesizers. In order to understand the 
implications we must look at the coming of the computer and its impact on 
music. 

By the early 1950s the transistor had made the computer a commercial 
proposition. Demand was on the increase, though computers were still quite 
large. One of the earliest applications of computers to music was Lejaren Hiller’s 
Illiac Suite , an eighteen-minute string quartet piece generated between 1955 and 
1957 by an Illiac computer at Illinois University, where Hiller subsequently 
taught experimental music. His computer music can be heard on Computer Music 
Retrospective (Wergo 1989). By 1961 the Bell Telephone Laboratories had 
successfully got a computer to synthesize sound. Punched cards, magnetic tape 
and magnetic discs would all be hold information which was fed into the 
computer in the form of numbers (hence the term ‘digital’). The outcoming 
information would be transformed using the now famous digital-to-analogue 
converter. Various models were made of analogue synthesizer components in 
computer labs. This had significant application to synthesizer design when in 
1973 Dr John Chowning, a researcher at Stanford University in California, 
cracked open the idea of FM, or Frequency Modulated synthesis. His insight 
made it possible to produce a huge panoply of tones and sounds by altering the 
frequency of the created sound waves. Computers would be used in the music 
of Gordon Mumma, who worked with John Cage and who in 1965, at the age 
of thirty, created the idea of ‘cybersonics’ or computer-controlled music in Ann 
Arbour, Michigan; and in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey , for which HAL’s 
computerized voice was originally conceived in the Bell Telephone Labora- 
tories in 1968; and in the quiet, hypnotic music of Mumma’ s associate David 
Behrman. 

In 1970 Hugh Le Caine developed the first polyphonic (multi-note) 
synthesizer in Canada. Then Moog brought out the Polymoog and Yamaha 
the CS-80 in 1976. As digital ideas spread, the idea of applying them to analogue 
instruments came into being. The concept of ‘sequencing’ (storing an array of 
notes and playing them back) had been invented by Donald Buchla when he 
designed his series of analogue electric music boxes for Morton Subotnick at the 
San Francisco Tape Center in the mid-1960s. But now digital means made on- 
board sequencing feasible. Oberheim applied it to its Expander series in the 
mid-1970s. Then in 1978, also from the US, came the Sequential Circuits 
Prophet 5. This was a synthesizer with five voices — five different synthesizers in 
one. Gloriously polyphonic, with forty different ways of connecting the sound, 
the Prophet 5 was fully programmable with control buttons which could be 
played live. It became a very popular instrument and was a favourite of 
Tangerine Dream and Terry Riley, to name two. 

Within a year there was a new instrument on the block. The Fairlight 
Computer Music Instrument, or CMI. This was invented in Sydney, Australia 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


87 


and was basically a computer with added keyboard which allowed the 
composer/musician to create sounds using digital means. It was polyphonic 
but, more importantly, had a sampler which had eight voices and thus was 
multi-timbral. The CMI was complemented in the US by the Synclavier, built 
by New England Digital and a combination of computer and digital/sampling 
ideas. Unsurprisingly, they were extremely expensive pieces of equipment. The 
idea of a built-in sequencer or looping was in vogue. The Linn Drum appeared 
in 1980 and with its programmable sampled acoustic drums would begin the age 
of the drum machine — an instrument integral to House and Ambient music of 
the late 1980s and early 90s. 

The extensive work carried out in computing and digital synthesis would 
finally get its commercial launch in the Yamaha DX7. The German PPG Wave 
had preceded it in the late 1970s but this was bulky and difficult to use. The 
DX7 was the first of the really important Japanese synthesizers and paved the 
way for the country’s domination of the market at the tail-end of the century. 
Even though it was reputed to be very difficult to programme, it dominated the 
market between 1983 and 1987. The DX7 took Chowning’s innovation of FM 
synthesis and put it on a silicon chip inside a highly sensitive keyboard. It had 
sixteen-voice polyphony, thirty-two memories and four digital channels per 
note. Full of beautiful pre-set sounds, like those of the old Rhodes piano and 
various acoustic instruments, the DX7 brought together all the ideas of previous 
decades into one smooth box. Relatively cheap, it sold in the hundreds of 
thousands. Through the work of Brian Eno - one of the world’s leading experts 
on the DX7 - and others it became an essential component of Ambient music. 

Everything after this was refinement. In the same year as the DX7 came the 
Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI. Basically this was a special 
universal connector that allowed several instruments to be tied together and 
controlled digitally by a computer. In 1986 the Atari ST computer came with 
built-in MIDI. In the same year arrived the phenomenal AKAI S900 sampler, a 
keyboard-less module which had eight-voice polyphony and set the standard 
for realistic sound sampling in the 1990s. The Japanese continued to dominate 
the market with the Roland D50, launched in 1987, which had new concepts 
like stored digital effects and sampled sound waveforms. 

Then came the Korg Ml and Wavestation between 1988 and 1990. Korg had 
been making synthesizers since the 1960s but these were in a class of their own. The 
Ml was a Rolls-Royce of a machine — multi-timbral, polyphonic, with built-in 
effects, built-in sequencing and a rainbow of fantastic sounds. It could be a piano, it 
could be an organ or even a guitar. And it all sounded so natural. The Wavestation 
came out of the same technology that had produced the Sequential Circuits 
Prophet 5 in 1978. Korg had acquired the Sequential Circuits company in 1988 and 
came up with the Wavestation in the 1990s. This specialist synthesizer became 
famous for its ability to allow a single voice to play an array of sound waves and thus 
it was synonymous with a generation of ‘swirling ambiences’. 

As geometric advances in technology continued, the end of the century saw 



88 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


musicians and composers faced with a plethora of digital devices. Digital Audio 
Tape (DAT) would replace analogue tape in the studio and small eight-track 
digital recording systems would make extremely high-quality recording avail- 
able to almost anyone. In the early 1990s Yamaha launched pocket-sized eight- 
track digital sequencing by means of machines such as the QY-20. Any work 
done on these in transit could be loaded into a computer or even directly 
plugged into other instruments using MIDI. By the mid-1990s a musician could 
do everything inside the brain of the new generation of Apple Macintosh and 
other home computers, which had powerful internal memories for storing 
information. A slew of companies offered tapeless recording systems and all sorts 
of sequencing and editing software was available on floppy computer disc. With 
the aid of Windows (a multiple-overlap and multiple-access computer operat- 
ing system), symphonic sound could be orchestrated at the touch of a button 
and generated from an array of MIDI linked units. Even vintage analogue 
synthesizers could now be MIDI’d up and controlled from a computer. 

Such was the demand for old sounds that as early as 1993 the EMU company 
built a Vintage Keys module with sixty-eight samples of the Mellotron, 
Wurlitzer Organ, Prophet 5 and so on. Ambient musicians began to return 
to the analogue synthesizers of old to both soften and beef up their hypnotic 
creations. Some spoke of building virtual synthesizers in a computer’s memory 
and playing them in virtual time. In Hertfordshire, England, Martin Newcomb 
opened a Museum of Synthesizer Technology - a veritable shrine to a century 
of synthesis. What’s interesting about this history is how the piano keyboard has 
remained an icon of musicality. Through its various mutations through organs, 
electric keyboards, synthesizer and now, as a veritable computer-control device, 
the piano keyboard has always acted as an umbilical root to the sources of music. 
Whatever its future the fact was that the piano keyboard became inextricably 
linked with synthesizer and computer technology over a century, altering the 
course of electronic and Ambient music for ever. 


COMPACT DISC 

The arrival in the early 1980s of Compact Disc Digital Audio, or CD as it quickly 
became known, opened up a whole new world of sound for the consumer. On a 
silver disc of just over four and a half inches in diameter could be encoded whole 
symphonies and concept albums. The sound was high-fidelity and the days of 
turning over a vinyl album to hear the rest of the music were over. Moreover it 
was always of the same high quality as there was no contact between the laser 
player picking up the digitized information and the spinning disc. Also, random 
accessing and programming of tracks and automatic repeat play were at last in the 
hands of the consumer. On vinyl records music had to be listened to in sequence 
or one track picked at a time. A CD could be played in any track order and indeed 



THE ELECTRONIC LANDSCAPE 


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it could be looked at as a single, an EP, or a complete album. The results of the 
strides in studio technology could now be heard in all their glory. Sound fidelity, 
once the preserve of hi-fi buffs willing to pay for expensive turntables, was now 
within reach of everyone. And above all CDs were virtually indestmctible. By the 
early 1990s one billion were being sold worldwide per year, and by the middle of 
the decade two and a half billion. Having displaced vinyl as the leading consumer 
music carrier, CD became the perfect medium for the long aural dreams that 
comprised end-of-the-century Ambient music. 

Developed by the Dutch electronics giant Philips over a period of fifteen 
years, CD was unveiled at the 1980 Salzburg Festival by the famous conductor 
Herbert von Karajan, who famously declared: ‘All else is gaslight.’ Compared to 
the vinyl record, the technological investment was high. Each disc is made of 
optical-grade clear polycarbonate with an aluminium reflective coating. This is 
encoded with over 6,000 million ‘pits’ of digital information. If a pit were the 
size of a grain of rice then a CD would have to be as big as any of the world’s 
large football stadiums. But, at about one seventy-fifth of the width of a human 
hair, they are microscopic and their huge number capable of holding a vast 
amount of information. The whole is sealed in a clear lacquer for protection. 

Philips developed CD jointly with Sony Japan, who by 1982 had readied the 
first domestic compact disc player. The initial market for the medium was seen 
to be classical music enthusiasts who were fed up with cycles of symphonies and 
such being spread over boxed sets of vinyl records. In 1983 CD was given its real 
marketing boost by Polygram (then eighty per cent owned by Philips), who 
launched 300 recordings, mostly classical. Sony and Philips boasted of ‘perfect 
sound for ever’ in their marketing. Though players were initially expensive, 
economies of scale brought prices down so that between 1986 and 1995 
worldwide sales increased by 65 million units. 

Yet there were latent fears. As early as 1988 various scientific articles began to 
appear disputing the claim by Sony and Philips that CDs could last for ever. One 
leading manufacturer, Nimbus, did admit that if air got into a CD when it was 
being produced the aluminium coating could deteriorate. Certain inks used on 
the top side of the disc were also causing distortion. Though the mastering 
process was 100 times cleaner than in a hospital operating theatre, if one spec of 
dust got into the CD master at the crucial assembly stage then all was lost. 
Millions of pounds were spent on testing this process and leading manufacturers 
such as Nimbus, Warner Brothers and Philips had much improved what became 
known as the Red Book Standard. By 1989 CD had overtaken vinyl as the 
sound carrier of choice in the marketplace. Three years later Philips declared 
that CDs could last at least 1,000 years! It was certainly true that, while they 
could be scratched, they were far more robust than vinyl records and faults were 
reduced to as little as point one per cent. 

The concept of sound waveforms being sampled, converted into numbers 
and then played back through a machine which could convert these same 
numbers into analogue sound would tease the music industry for the latter part 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


of the century. Old tape-derived recordings began to be digitally remastered in 
the late 1980s for fidelity’s sake. Then the boxed set arrived in 1990, ushered in 
by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, who wished to restore his back-catalogue. 
This led to a rush of similar ventures and the unearthing of hundreds of 
thousands of old recordings. Instead of killing off old music, as some feared, CD 
meant even more music. Anything recorded on tape was ripe for remastering 
and repackaging on to the new format. There was just more music around for 
everybody. And more music around in digital form for Ambient House 
musicians, with their need to fill up long, long mixes, to sample. 

Initial problems of harsh digital sound were evened out by better and better 
disc players. In response to DAT and its consumer outcrop Digital Compact 
Cassette (DCC), Sony launched a Mini-Disc system in late 1992. This was a 
two-and-a-half-inch disc housed in a case which looked like a small floppy disc. 
It had seventy-five per cent of the quality of CD as a result of using a system of 
sound compression to squeeze seventy-five minutes of music on to its tiny 
surface. Amazingly, it was recordable, erasable and had an anti-skipping device 
for portability. Hugh Padgham, the producer of Sting and Phil Collins, declared 
that ‘tapeless technology was the future’ and endorsed it straight away. The 
arrival of MP3 in the US in 1999 seemed to bear out this prediction. A 
tapeless, indeed discless, innovation, this tiny box could, via a computer, 
download music from the Internet. Yet this futuristic wonder had drawbacks 
- loss of fidelity due to extreme compression into digital form and a lengthy 
download time of about five and a half hours for an album. 

By the late 1990s CD had lodged itself in human consciousness in a very real 
way. CD-Rom releases, kick-started by the English rock star Peter Gabriel in 1994, 
were increasing in popularity. Here music, graphics, text, images and data could all 
be loaded into a personal computer from the disc. There was CD-I, interactive CD 
which gave the consumer many more choices about what was heard and how it 
was heard. Even though the recording industry had been clever enough to encode 
commercially available CDs with a system to prevent digital copies being made, this 
did not stop an increasing call for normal CDs to become recordable. In 1996 the 
first recordable-CD players were made available to the public. Talk of a multi- 
purpose four-and-a-half-inch disc which could store everything - music, film and 
computer data - and output it all through a single multi-media device was soon to 
become reality in the form of Digital Video Disc, or DVD. 

By 2002 DVD- Audio and Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) (developed by 
Panasonic and Sony/Philips respectively) promised greater storage capacity with 
increased dynamics, wider frequency response and a full ambient five-channel 
‘surround sound’. Even though fast Internet broadband had allowed computers a 
more central role in music dissemination, all eyes were on new disc formats. 
Developed in the US, DataPlay could store up to eleven albums’ worth of music 
on a disc the size of a lOp coin. More significant was the coming of blue laser 
technology (from Japan) via the futuristic Blu-ray disc, offering storage capacities 
above twenty-seven gigabytes or about 5,400 tracks on one disc! 



BOOK TWO 

MINIMALISM, ENO 
AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


D URING THE EARLY 1970s the full impact of Minimalism could be 
heard around the globe. For in that year two concept albums were 
released into mainstream consciousness. They topped the charts every- 
where and sold in the millions. One helped shape the evolution of rock, one 
helped start a legendary record company. Today those recordings are still selling. 
The first was Dark Side Of The Moon by the English group Pink Floyd. This 
concept album was charged by a form of repetition, and in places the chugging 
of synthesizers bore an uncanny resemblance to the music of the American 
Minimalist Philip Glass. The second, released only months later in the summer 
of 1973, was Tubular Bells. This was an instrumental suite, conceived and played 
entirely by one English musician — the twenty-year-old Mike Oldfield. Its 
interlocking series of notes, repeated throughout the first part of the composi- 
tion, was originally blueprinted by another American writer of Minimalist 
music, Steve Reich. The album was so popular it financed the running and 
prosperity of Virgin Records, a label committed to innovative rock. Minimalist 
music would go on to influence the mainstream in the late 1970s through the 
work of David Bowie and in the late 1980s via the sound of Ireland’s U2. 

But what was Minimalism? And why was it so important? In May 1969 Steve 
Reich gave a concert of what he described as his ‘pulse music’ in the Whitney 
Museum in New York City. He supplied to the audience an essay he had 
written the previous year titled ‘Music As A Gradual Process’. In it could be 
discerned the bedrock of all Minimalist music. He talked of the ‘musical process’ 
as one that determines itself, that ‘happens extremely gradually’ and that 
‘facilitates closely detailed listening’. Reich expanded on the theme, noting 
that the music had a meditative quality, the kind of sounds perceived almost by 
chance. This allusion to John Cage was made more explicit when he admitted 
that ‘musical processes’ had a degree of ‘indeterminacy’ and that ‘once the 
process is set up and loaded it runs by itself. Then he drew a line between 
himself and Cage in that his music and the process behind it were one and the 
same thing. Therefore the very act of creating a piece of Minimalist music was 
the music itself! For the listener Reich felt that this music could always sound 
different, that ‘there were still enough mysteries to satisfy all’. He compared 
listening to Minimalist music to ‘watching the minute hand of a watch — you 
can perceive it moving only after you observe it for a while’. He also compared 



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the experience to listening to the modal folk and ethnic musics popular in the 
late 1960s and the music of India and electronic music, which used a ‘constant 
key centre’ of hypnotic drones and repetition. But the difference here for Reich 
was that Minimalism wasn’t a form ‘for improvisation’, because the very process 
determined ‘the note details and the form simultaneously’. In the end he aligned 
Minimalist music with meditation, its ritualistic sense shifting music away from 
the subjective attention of the listener to an objective appreciation of its very 
existence. 

These ideas were revolutionary, not only for composers looking for a way 
forward from Schoenberg and Serialism, but also for musicians in other genres 
and even twentieth- century philosophers. Minimalism’s importance was that it 
offered a new direction, a tangible framework in which twentieth-century 
music could progress. To understand Minimalism one has to understand how 
important Schoenberg and his followers had become by the 1950s. The 
academic world had adopted Serialism as the new ethos and many young 
musicians and composers simply did not agree. The times were changing and 
social and political forces were pushing music in another direction. Steve Reich 
felt that academic music was ‘nutty’, that the work of ‘Schoenberg and Boulez 
had no rhythm nor melodic organization’ and was ‘unappealing’. Philip Glass 
saw it as ‘a one-way-ticket — to nowhere. A cul-de- sac’. John Adams shared 
Glass’s despondency in having to study Webern and similar composers; for him 
it was ‘an unhappy time’. Harold Budd spoke of ‘getting a heavy-dose of 
European avant-garde music which I never really cottoned on to’. Jon Hassell 
and Terry Riley both decided that Serial music ‘was a perfect model for 
twentieth-century problems and the fact that it originated in Vienna at the time 
of Freud was no mere coincidence’. In fact Riley saw Serial music as truly 
‘neurotic’. Yet it was one of the ironies of the twentieth century that without 
something so rigid and formalized as the music of the Second Viennese School, 
a new form like Minimalism would have had nothing to bounce off. 

If traditional Serialism was unappetizing, then the work of John Cage and 
Stockhausen was more palatable. In fact La Monte Young admired Webern and 
travelled to Darmstadt to work with Stockhausen in the 1950s. His time there 
opened up his mind to the idea of the ‘single sound’. Back in the US, he said: 
‘We must let sounds be what they are.’ Young was also influenced by John 
Cage, as were Harold Budd, John Adams and Brian Eno. In a way every person 
who touched music during the 1960s and 70s was affected by Cage’s take on the 
significance of ‘silence’. His writings and ideas crop up again and again as we 
unfold Minimalism’s history. Another influence was the open jazz music 
performed by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. All the major American 
Minimalists — Young, Riley, Reich, Glass, Adams — were impressed with post 
be-bop jazz, particularly the lengthy explorations of John Coltrane. All had first- 
hand experience of Coltrane and Miles Davis playing live and saw in their 
extended, often modal, compositions a new way of creating music. 

Then, of course, there were the times. According to Jon Hassell: ‘The history 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


93 


of drugs in America is inextricably interlaced with early Minimalism. There was 
a need for a music that one could actually enjoy listening to and that you could 
float away to.’ Finally there was the very social nature of the music. No 
movement has had so much interaction and cross-pollination from all the main 
parties. Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Pauline Oliveros all studied together 
at Berkeley. Jon Hassell performed and recorded with both Young and Riley. 
Steve Reich performed in Riley’s ground-breaking concert performance of In 
C in San Francisco in 1964. He also attended the Juilliard School of Music in 
New York with Philip Glass. In the late 1960s both Reich and Glass formed an 
ensemble. Michael Nyman played for a time in Steve Reich’s group and also 
recorded with Brian Eno. John Adams conducted Steve Reich, who was a 
strong influence on Eno, as had been Philip Glass, whom Eno had seen 
in concert in 1970. Eno also recorded and produced Harold Budd, John Adams 
and Jon Hassell. In 1989 Eno produced a new version of In C with Terry 
Riley and Jon Hassell. In the 1990s Philip Glass produced new symphonic 
versions of albums Eno had recorded with David Bowie in the 1970s. And so on. 

But what’s most intriguing about Minimalism is the way the very music is a 
product of individual experience and invention. Each figure, in his very own 
way, contributed, mosaic-like, to the overall pattern. It’s only when we look at 
each individual in depth that we can grasp the broader picture. A problem with 
so much work done up to now on Minimalism is that, with exceptions, the area 
has been rushed over in an attempt to get somewhere else, presumably more 
interesting. La Monte Young zigzagged his way from Midwestern isolation, 
through jazz, Stockhausen and Cage, into the Fluxus movement in New York. 
Then, inspired by Indian music, he formed The Dream Syndicate for what was 
to become ‘a benchmark experiment in drones and tuning’. Terry Riley was 
inspired by jazz, the psychedelic drug mescaline, Moroccan travels and working 
in the Paris studio of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, to come up with his 
‘time-lag accumulator’, a way of making sheets of sound using two tape 
machines and keyboards. Steve Reich also worked with tape recorders to 
invent his ‘phase music’ and by travelling to Africa and the Middle East arrived 
at an interlocking music of rich complexity. Philip Glass found his way via Ravi 
Shankar, the idea of cyclical motion in music enhanced through his travels in 
North Africa and Asia. John Adams came to Minimalism by working with 
electronics and synthesizers at the San Francisco Conservatory during the 1970s. 

It was down to Brian Eno to synthesize the work of the primary Minimalist 
composers and bring it into the mainstream. He had seen Philip Glass perform 
and was impressed by the music’s form. He had heard Steve Reich and found 
fascinating the accidental beauty which came out of Reich’s tape-loop experi- 
ments. He was intrigued by Riley’s use of tape delay and was generally 
enamoured of La Monte Young, whose music he performed when he was 
at art college. He fused all this with the philosophy of John Cage and in 1975 
invented Ambient music — music that would take on the hues of environment 
‘just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain’. He was intrigued with 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


the idea of ‘automatic music’ and took Reich’s aforementioned ‘music as a 
gradual process’ to heart. All of Eno’s Ambient music was a variation on the 
theme of the process ‘running by itself’. On records and in installations, 
throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s Eno allowed several lengths of tape or 
various pre-recorded discs to run out of synch with each other. The results were 
unpredictable, but his taste in ‘loading’ the system always ensured beautiful 
outcomes. His work highlighted how Minimalism fused strong new ideas with 
changes in technology to maximum effect. 

New Age music is a general fallout from Minimalism and Ambient. Much 
derided, the movement threw up genuine talent and some fascinating labels like 
Windham Hill. Though most of the product was essentially facsimile music, its 
very popularity was denoted by Eno as exemplifying how people’s listening 
habits had changed. It wasn’t all ‘blurring noises mixed with pretty sounds’. At 
its worst it could sound like this, as in the prodigious output of Japanese mystic 
keyboard player Kitaro. The better-quality material, like the music of William 
Ackerman or Mark Isham, had its roots both in Minimalism and the Cool jazz of 
John Coltrane and Miles Davis. New Age coincided with a vast increase in 
disposable income in the West and the change from records to CDs in the 
consumer market. Dozens of labels proliferated, most offering pleasing instru- 
mental bubble to calm the nerves of anxious young upwardly mobile profes- 
sional people, or Yuppies as they became known in the 1980s. Some of these 
labels, like Virgin Venture in the UK, used the niche opened up by New Age to 
market quality Minimalist music. Hence Michael Nyman scored his biggest 
successes when his soundtrack music from the films of Peter Greenaway and 
Jane Campion was released by Virgin Venture. 

The aesthetic of Minimalism was nowhere better perceived than in the 
development of the German label ECM. Founded in 1970 by musician 
Manfred Eicher, ECM aimed to capture ‘the most beautiful sound next to 
silence’. In the studio gifted musicians were recorded with all the resonance and 
Ambience possible, adding a texture and tonality that was new to jazz, Eicher’s 
initial interest. The music ofwunderkind Keith Jarrett went far beyond simple 
jazz, his strong melodic fusion of styles subservient to the rich tone of his 
Bosendorfer piano. Captured on record at Jarrett’s unforgettable concert in 
Cologne in 1975, the audience’s applause is made to feel part of the whole 
listening experience. With its sleek white cover, The Koln Concert was Minim- 
alism and Ambience spliced together in a package of sleek sophistication. In 
retrospect it seems logical that Eicher should be the first to embrace the ‘New 
Simplicity’, a term applied to a new wave of spiritual Minimalist music 
emanating from the former Soviet bloc in the last part of the twentieth century. 

On hearing the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Part on the radio in the 
early 1980s, Eicher pronounced that it was the beginning of a new direction for 
him. He was impressed by the music’s ‘clarity — the direct path to ear and mind’. 
He felt that here was ‘a music of innermost calm’, a ‘music of slowly beating 
wings’. For him this music was still, sensitive to time, with tones that created 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


95 


their own light. Progressing via film music, John Cage, Erik Satie and especially 
Steve Reich, Part had rejected all he was taught. He looked to the music of the 
medieval church, the use of bells in the Orthodox Church and to silence. He 
wrote his music of ‘time and timelessness’ where a single bell marked time and 
strings scaled an emotional peak and receded into silence; and then promptly 
fled the country. Later he was to say: ‘I am alone with Silence. I have discovered 
that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. Silence comforts me.’ 

The music of Henryk Gorecki was also to capture the public imagination in 
the 1990s. Having studied Webern and Debussy, Gorecki looked to other 
sources of inspiration in his native Poland. He found it in nature, Polish prayer 
and the folk melodies of the fifteenth century. Full of melancholy for the 
destruction suffered by his country during and after the Second World War, 
Gorecki used the death of a Holocaust victim to fuel the writing of his Symphony 
No. 3 , a luminously deep rendering of Minimalism in which instruments climb a 
tortuous aural stairway to an angelic vocal. 

The English composer John Tavener saw simplicity, silence and repetition as 
absolute necessities. Through electronics and the music of Messiaen, he sought a 
unity of sound. He looked to the Orthodox Church and found in its ritualistic, 
monophonic music an ‘intensity’ which was also ascribed to early Minimalism. 
He incorporated all these elements into making what he termed ‘lyrical ikons in 
sound’. His music became so popular that it now stands for a kind of quiet 
passion. The use of his elegiac Song For Athene at the funeral of Diana, Princess 
of Wales in 1997 confirmed that Minimalism had passed into the everyday lives 
of ordinary people. 


LA MONTE YOUNG 

Though the work of La Monte Young stands as a cornerstone of all 
Minimalist and Ambient music, you would never guess this from the amount 
of recordings available in his name. Only a handful have ever made it to the 
marketplace and none has even grazed the charts. Yet his work in the area of 
pure sound, the sustaining of chords and tones over very long time cycles and 
his deep developments in the area of tuning spawned American Minimalist 
music in the 1960s and early 70s. Within Young’s work we can observe 
elements of Debussy, Satie, Webern, Ives, Messiaen and Grainger, but above 
all John Cage and Stockhausen. By reducing music to the elements of single 
sounds and multiplying its effect through repetition, Young templated not 
only Minimalism but also the concept of Ambient rock via his work with the 
prototype Velvet Underground. Through his lifelong development of the 
piano work The Well-Tuned Piano , Young created, particularly during the 
1970s and 80s, the idea of a continuous sound and light environment that 
would last not only hours but years at a time. This fed directly into the work 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


of Brian Eno and would leave a sustained impression on Ambient club spaces 
of the late twentieth century. 

La Monte Young was born in desolate Bern, Idaho, in 1935. Roughly about 
the size of the UK and with a population of only a million today, then it was 
isolation personified. Young is often quoted as remembering his first musical 
experience as that of wind whistling through the family log cabin by the Bear 
river. Raised in a Mormon farming community, he started on guitar at four, 
sang hymns and played the piano. Owing to the effects of the depression, 
Young’s father took temporary employ at an oil plant, where La Monte was 
impressed with the humming sounds of transformers. In the early 1940s the 
large family moved to Los Angeles and, though poor, put whatever spare money 
they had into purchasing La Monte a saxophone. When they moved to another 
farm in Utah, Young would spend four years developing his technique, taught 
largely by an uncle steeped in Kansas City jazz. That and the Ambient natural 
sounds of the forests and lakes would form his early musical mind. 

ATter another move, this time back to LA, Young was living near a trainyard, 
another potent sound inspiration. At high school he was passionate about be- 
bop, the sound of the late 1940s spearheaded by Charlie Parker and Dizzy 
Gillespie. He played in dance bands for money and learned all he could about 
harmony from his music teacher, Clyde Sorenson, who had been taught by 
Schoenberg. By the early 1950s Young was addicted to the jazz lifestyle and 
eventually ran away from home and played the bohemian. Such was the 
standard of his sax playing that he was taken on by the prestigious LA City 
College dance band alongside such jazz supremos as Don Cherry. During his 
three-year stay at the college Young was inspired by Leonard Stein (another 
Schoenberg disciple) to get into Anton Webern’s world of limpid and silence. 
Young’s first major piece, Five Small Pieces For String Quartet (1956), was written 
in homage to Webern. 

Young attended LA State College for a year before landing on his feet at 
UCLA, where he was exposed to much Japanese and Indonesian music; an 
album of Indian ragas by Ali Akbar Khan was also influential. Having got his 
Batchelor’s degree, Young entered Berkeley to do graduate studies. In the 
summer of his graduation year, 1958, he wrote Trio For Strings , considered to be 
the benchmark Minimalist piece and an historic moment in the development of 
music. Instead of polyphonic character and movement, one heard silences and 
sound that seemed to hover without melodic or rhythmic development. Like 
Debussy, Young had been deeply affected by Eastern music. His teachers were 
not amused, but two pupils in his class, Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, were 
impressed. 

During the summer of 1959 Young made a pilgrimage to Darmstadt to hear 
Stockhausen talk of the importance of single sounds and the music of John 
Cage. There he met David Tudor, the pianist most associated with Cage’s 
music. On his return to Berkeley he became a teaching assistant and staged a 
series of incendiary avant-garde performances. Audiences were asked to look at 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


97 


each other, witness butterflies hovering around a theatre, look at a fire crackling 
on stage and, in one of his most famous pieces, Piano Piece No. 1 For David Tudor 
(1960), watch a piano consume a bale of hay and a bucket of water! Another 
piece from 1960, X For Henry Flynt , required the performer to slam his or her 
arm down on a cluster of piano notes for a long time. Different from the work of 
Cage and Stockhausen, Young’s was a rarification of sound down to its absolute 
minimum. It’s not surprising that Brian Eno was inspired by X For Henry Flynt 
while at art college. 

This piece would become a vital ingredient of Young’s aesthetic when he 
moved to Greenwich Village in late 1960. Ostensibly Young had been sent to 
New York by Berkeley to study electronic music at the New School for Social 
Research, but the reality was that the famous Californian campus was tired of his 
antics. Young soon fell in with the Downtown art and music crowd spear- 
headed by Yoko Ono and George Maciunas, a group of radical artists who 
would be historically known as Fluxus. Early Young concerts in Yoko Ono’s 
Lower Manhattan loft attracted the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel 
Duchamp, plus composers John Cage and Morton Feldman, all fascinated by 
what Young described as the ‘Theatre Of The Singular Event’. La Monte 
Young had arrived. 

In 1962 Young wrote two pieces, The Four Dreams Of China and The Second 
Dream Of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, where actual pitches of 
individual notes would be held on instruments, and sometimes frequency 
generators, for long periods of time. To a casual listener these pieces seemed 
like simple experiments in linear sound but they would lead to Young’s radical 
invention of ‘just intonation’, of which more later. 

In 1963 Young met and married the calligraphic artist Marian Zazeela, who 
was also interested in refining form over long periods of time. Her speciality was 
light art and the pair moved into a large loft space in what is today Tribeca. Here 
Young practised hard on sopranino saxophone and delved deeper into drones 
and tunings. In 1963 he also formed what would be one of the most significant 
groups of all time, The Theatre Of Eternal Music, better known as The 
Dream Syndicate. 

Over from London on a music scholarship, the Welshman John Cale was 
attracted both to Young and John Cage. By joining The Dream Syndicate, Cale 
opened the door for The Velvet Underground, which contained in its earliest 
incarnation Dream Syndicate members Tony Conrad and Angus MacLise. For 
eighteen months in 1963 and 1964, this group of people would gather in 
Young’s loft every day, seven days a week, and rehearse for hours. Young 
played intense frenetic saxophone solos over very defined drones held by 
Marian Zazeela’s voice, John Cale’s viola and Tony Conrad’s violin or bowed 
guitar. MacLise played Indian tablas. Problems with tuning led to Young just 
holding vocal notes. Though most of the original master tapes are held in a 
nuclear bunker in upstate New York, Young has played copies on American 
radio stations. The pieces Early Tuesday Morning Blues , B Flat Dorian Blues, 



98 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Sunday Morning Blues and Fire Is Emir are suffused with an incredibly strong sense 
of the Orient and reveal Young to be an outstanding sax player. Basically this 
music has the quality of raga but arrived at by a completely different route - by 
using just intonation. The result is a series of clouds of sound. 

John Cale once told me: ‘We achieved something that was culturally pivotal. 
We encouraged each other to pursue this experimental research into the 
structural fundamentals of music, both harmonically and intellectually. I wanted 
to make my mark with the electric viola [restrung with mandolin and guitar 
strings], so I filed the bridge down and played it with a bass bow. The Dream 
Syndicate ended up being two amplified voices, a violin and a viola. The strings 
were the predominant overwhelming force in the music. It still is a benchmark 
experiment in drones and tuning.’ 

In 1964 Young conceived his masterpiece, The Well-Tuned Piano , described by 
the New York Times as a ‘music of spell-binding moods that seeks to produce an 
immediate deeply-felt sensation’. An astonishing piano tour de force which lasts 
anything up to five and a half hours, it has been the bedrock of Y oung’s work ever 
since. In this work, the best example of the power of just intonation, both the soft, 
silent passages and occasional sprays of notes conjure up a wholly different world. 
Young’s grasp of just intonation has precedents in the use of Eastern modes by 
Debussy, Satie and Messiaen. He even titled one half-hour section of The Well- 
Tuned Piano ‘Hommage a Debussy’. Believed to be derived from Pythagoras’s 
work in ancient Greece, just intonation sets out a whole series of notes that go far 
beyond the twelve tones of the Western scale. Tuning according to the harmonics 
and overtones contained in every note releases dozens of unheard frequencies 
which when played produces a shimmering mystical music. Tuning is difficult and 
has to be limited to a fundamental frequency or else too many notes would have to 
be catered for. La Monte Y oung would spend the next seventeen years refining his 
tunings for his debut recording of The Well-Tuned Piano. 

Fond of his pet tortoise 49, Young wrote a whole series of pieces in 1964 
based on the frequency of its aquarium motor. Ever the anarchist, he gave these 
drones hilariously long titles, such as: The blue sawtooth high-tension line stepdown 
transformer refracting the legend of the dream of the tortoise traversing the 189/98 lost 
ancestral lake region illuminating quotients for the black tiger tapestries of the drone of the 
holy numbers. Most of this would be absorbed into the drone study The Tortoise , 
His Dreams And Journeys , an ever-developing piece. 

Marian Zazeela was fast evolving her visual aesthetic alongside Young’s. In 
their Manhattan loft the pair conceived the Dream House, a continuous 
environment consisting of Young’s drones and Zazeela’s light creations where 
precisely coloured calligraphic designs would be used for projections. Their first 
major collaboration was 1966’s Map of 49’ s Dream the two systems of eleven sets of 
galactic intervals Ornamental Eighty ear’s Tracery , which lasted for hours. In concert 
the aim of the concept was to see how periodic soundwaves and synchronized 
light art affected audiences. In many ways Young and Zazeela were pioneers of 
the psychedelic light show. 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


99 


Young conducted many experiments in sine waves in 1967, the most 
noteworthy being Drift Studies. That year he even created some very loud 
music for films by Andy Warhol. In 1968 Young and his wife unsuccessfully 
tried to persuade CBS to record them singing to the sea. Most important for 
Young was his live group The Theatre Of Eternal Music, since John Cale’s 
departure a fluid aggregation in which biofeedback musician David Rosen- 
boom, minimalists Terry Riley and Jon Gibson plus the experimental trumpeter 
Jon Hassell played as guests. By 1970 it would also include the singer Pandit 
Pran Nath, a North Indian guru whose precise intonation greatly impressed 
Young. That year Young and Zazeela became disciples of Nath and his kiranic 
form of singing, which was in just intonation. This area would become a 
lifelong study for the composer. 

If people at MIT and neurosurgeons were heavily impressed by La Monte 
Young’s studies in tuning, audiences were intrigued by The Theatre Of Eternal 
Music. Throughout Europe and America, in galleries and spaces during the late 
1960s and early 70s, the ensemble created Sound And Light Environments. 
Both Young and Zazeela were bankrolled by Heiner Friedrich from money 
earned in oil. Friedrich and his wife were enthusiastic about art, particularly that 
of Joseph Beuys and Donald Judd. Impressed by Zazeela’s unique light art and 
Young’s commitment to sound environments, the Friedrichs created the Dia 
Art Foundation. Dia Art ran a fifty-seven-day performance of the Dream House 
in 1975 and following its success invited Young and Zazeela to find a venue 
which would house performance space, a gallery, a recording studio, an archive, 
offices and so on. 

After finding the old Mercantile Exchange in Harrison Street and then 
spending years converting it, Young and Zazeela opened the Dream House in 
1979. Pandit Pran Nath gave masterclasses while different rooms housed 
exhibitions and installations of sound and light. The main space was the old 
trading floor, which featured Young’s enormous Bosendorfer Imperial Grand 
Piano. This instrument had to be previously tuned in Vienna but was now in situ 
permanently and in a constant state of retuning as Young expanded his work on 
The Well-Tuned Piano. Humidity and temperature were constantly monitored. 
Up to October 1981 the Dia Art Foundation had funded over forty live 
performances and forty-five recording sessions of the piece before Young was 
satisfied. The recording in that month of The Well-Tuned Piano was Young’s 
greatest achievement. The setting, in the mystical environment of Zazeela’s 
Magenta Lights , where magenta and blue light refracted off aluminium mobiles, 
complemented the music perfectly. Terry Riley stated: ‘This is holy work.’ 

By 1985 La Monte Young was considered by the Los Angeles Herald Examiner 
to be ‘the most influential U.S. composer of the last quarter century’. Though 
Dia Art suffered badly because of the Texas oil crash of that year, Young’s 
influence has since been unassailable. Having moved to a Church Street loft, he 
has continued to refine his work using synthesizers and computers. His hermetic 
existence and indifference to the marketplace has helped to magnify his 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


influence. Both he and Zazeela established the MELA Foundation to preserve 
and extend their archives and during the 1990s Young worked in the area of 
blues and orchestral score. By being the first to concentrate on extended 
duration, a minimum of notes or frequencies and the effect on the listener, 
Young not only changed the art of composition but also the art of performance 
in all musics. 

LISTENING 

For years it was almost impossible to hear anything by La Monte Young. There 
was a Theatre Of Eternal Music recording titled Dream House on the French 
label Shandar from 1973 which featured Jon Hassell on trumpet. There was 
even a recording with Pandit Pran Nath on Ragas Of The Morning And Night 
(Gramavision) . Of the available recordings: The Second Dream Of The High 
Tension Line Stepdown Transformer (Gramavision 1992) consists of four pitches 
held on brass instruments derived from childhood memories of overhead cables 
in the wind. It is a section of his 1962 work The Four Dreams Of China. Another 
work, fust Stompin’ (Gramavision 1993), is credited to The Forever Bad Blues 
Band — a misfired attempt to incorporate Young’s blues synthesizer playing into 
the context of a bar-room blues sound. Miraculously the beginning of the 
twenty-first century saw the release of Inside The Dream Syndicate Vol. t - Day 
Of Niagara (1965) on the Table of Elements label; a recording made in Young’s 
New York loft which communicates all the amplified dronal power of the 
original Theatre Of Eternal Music. The definitive Young album is the five-disc 
version of the ten-record set The Well-Tuned Piano (Gramavision 1994). 
Originally released in 1987, this is one of the greatest piano works of all time. 
Recorded using microphones very close to the piano strings, it reaches what 
Young calls ‘the highest levels of spontaneous musical inspiration’. As you listen 
to clusters of tones, droplets of notes, you can hear the shimmer of Debussy, the 
rhythm of jazz and blues, the sway of Hindustani classicism, the spatial features 
ofjapanese and Indonesian musics. This work is so special that at each listening it 
sounds different, peeling back to reveal new layers of meaning and emotion. 
Here you will find a perfect marriage of his just-intonation tuning and his 
calligraphic music. Young describes the resultant music as ‘tones suspended in 
the air, as if emanating from the universal source of the eternal sound’. 


TERRY RILEY 

The incessant pulse of Terry Riley’s masterly In C of 1964 would push 
Minimalism out of academia and into the commercial limelight. Riley was 
the first of the Minimalist and Ambient composers to grasp the importance of 
commercial records and by exploiting this medium he made himself more 



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101 


famous than his contemporaries. While the release in 1969 of A Rainbow In 
Curved Air , his milestone studio recording of ‘spatially separated mirror images’, 
applied pure musical theory to technology, its effect on rock culture (Soft 
Machine, Curved Air, The Who) was immediate. Moreover Riley’s grasp of 
concert improvisation (derived from the work of John Coltrane and Miles 
Davis) was hugely popular during the first psychedelic era and that, plus his 
recorded output, has sifted down to greatly influence modern music both in its 
use of repetition and style of performance. 

Bom in the railroad town of Colfax, California, in 1935, Riley could play 
violin and piano by the age of six. While his father worked on the railways Riley 
got most of his musical input from the radio and, like La Monte Y oung, was 
greatly impressed by be-bop jazz. At high school he extended himself to leam 
brass instmments and became familiar with Debussy and Stravinsky. Through a 
combination of fate and timing Riley would be caught up in a series of 
experiences which would directly shape his music. 

After practising piano for two years he entered San Francisco State University 
in 1955 and abandoned the idea of being a virtuoso pianist. Instead he opted for 
composition and studied carefully the work of Schoenberg and Thelonius 
Monk. By 1957 he was married and a father and had to work in an airport and 
play stride piano at the Gold Street Saloon to boost his finances. He also 
attended the San Francisco Music Conservatoire. But his big move came when, 
as a Master’s degree student at Berkeley, he met La Monte Young. After hearing 
Trio For Strings Riley felt he had been ‘initiated’. Like Young, he was inspired by 
Stockhausen and Cage but worked towards a new music with the likes of 
Pauline Oliveros. Working for dance companies, he made several sound 
collages for tape. When he left Berkeley with an MA in 1961 he invented a 
piece based on his experiences with the natural psychedelic dmg mescaline, 
using two tape recorders and long tape loops. In 1962 Riley took his family to 
visit Young in New York and then sailed to Europe to seek inspiration. 

Still stmck by the work of Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus, he 
landed in Spain and worked his way across Europe as a pianist, often playing for 
US Army bases, sometimes supporting variety and circus acts. Stmck by Arabic 
music, he made two extensive trips to Morocco. In Paris he worked with 
Daevid Allen (the Australian founder of the soon-to-be-famous psychedelic 
band Soft Machine) and with tmmpeter Chet Baker on a soundtrack titled The 
Gift for the Theatre Of Nations. In the studio of Radio France (where Schaeffer 
and Henry had made such giant strides with musique concrete ) Riley invented his 
‘time-lag accumulator’ a simple tape-delay system which could repeat the 
patterns of Baker’s tmmpet layer upon layer using two tape recorders. 

Riley remembers that ‘this was a foremnner of In C because it was a piece 
built out of patterns’. Returning to New York in 1964, Riley was impressed by 
The Theatre Of Eternal Music and Young’s experiments with retuning 
instmments. Yet Riley followed his own path to San Francisco and wrote 
In C — a piece made out of fifty-three different musical cells which the 



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performer had to work through. Repetition of cells was encouraged until 
boredom set in. The piece started on tape recorders but developed into a pulse 
piece for ensemble which ignored the traditional falls and swells of classical 
music or a need for thematic development. In fact everything was in the key of 
C. Performed in late 1964 at the San Francisco Tape Center with future 
Minimalists Steve Reich and Jon Hassell in the ensemble, In C not only broke 
ground in ‘serious music’ but showed how much New Music and psychedelia 
had in common. The piece came with coloured lights and an up beat. There 
was joy in repetition. Riley reflects: ‘People like Morton Subotnick played. San 
Franciscan poets like Michael McClure came. There was a very positive 
response. It was just before the psychedelic era and all these people were 
looking for new kinds of poetry and music.’ 

By 1968 In C would be on a Columbia record with the original 1964 review 
from the San Francisco Chronicle on the cover. In the spirit of the times this read: 
‘you have never done anything in your life but listen to this music as if that is all 
there is or ever will be . . .’ Clearly Riley had caused a revolution. Yet in 1965 he 
moved back to New York and joined The Theatre Of Eternal Music in pursuit 
of ever more exotic drones. Fatigued by all-day rehearsals, Riley branched out in 
1966 and wrote a saxophone piece, Poppy Nogood And His Phantom Band. When 
performing live he would sit cross-legged on a carpet and improvise his sax lines 
over the dynamic result of two interlocking tape recorders. Today Poppy Nogood 
sounds wholly Indian in its inspiration. Riley recalls: ‘By using tape delay I could 
have a rhythmic stmcture to play against. The concerts I did in the 1960s used this 
and tape feedback. Tape was always part of the process and stmcture of the music. 

I had a Super Vox Continental electronic organ and the tape recorders with 
feedback loops in place. Some people from Columbia Masterworks came to see 
me play at Steinway Hall in New York. After that David Behrman, a well-known 
producer at Columbia, asked me to record A Rainbow In Curved Air — and then 
things really started happening.’ 

Even the title of A Rainbow In Curved Air, written in 1968 and released on 
record to universal acclaim in 1969, is apposite, for it plugged right into a music 
culture rich in social and ideological change. For Riley, it was ‘the first music I 
knew of which used tape delay as a stmctural element’. Performing on new 
eight-track tape equipment, he played electric organ, electric harpsichord, 
dumbec, rocksichord, tambourine and soprano sax. The sound was a glittering 
array of sequences pushed along by a bubbling electronic pulse. The sheer 
dexterity and force of attack of Riley’s keyboard motifs was astonishing. The 
sound was electronic, Minimalist but fulsomely optimistic, modem with a 
strong tinge of classical beauty. Moreover the thematic ideas of old were 
abandoned for a music of pure sound - a sound so beautiful that time and space 
seemed to change all around it. Another notable piece to surface from this 
period was The Hall Of Mirrors In The Palace Of Versailles, recorded with John 
Cale during the Rainbow sessions. 

As American academics have noted, Riley had introduced ‘elements of 



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103 


performer choice, improvisation and chance’ into electronic music. But his was 
a music Technicoloured and amplified by the psychedelic context. Perfor- 
mances of Rainbow at the Electric Circus in New York drew many plaudits, 
most notably from a young Philip Glass, who was dazzled by the sheer energy 
and volume of Riley’s performance. Yet Riley was more interested in Indian 
music and returned to California to study it. He acknowledges that at the 
moment of great commercial success he opted for a different path: ‘I found that 
my work was pointing towards the kind of music that was happening in India, 
North Africa and the Middle East. Even though it had many differences it 
shared many things, so a study of Indian classical music would be a very valuable 
thing for me to do — a deep serious study of how the music actually worked.’ 

Riley’s path led him to northern India and the village of Dehra Dun. There in 
1970, in the company of La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and trumpeter Jon 
Hassell, Riley studied under the kiranic singer Pandit Pran Nath, a guru and 
‘one of the greatest teachers in India’. Several trips were made, meditation 
lessons starting before sunrise in the hills, the voice being the main instrument. 
Lifestyle was as important as practice and the general philosophy of the yogi 
prevailed. Riley ended up teaching Indian raga at Mills College in Oakland, 
California until 1980. He specialized in all areas, tabla percussion, vocal 
dynamics, notation and tuning. The last would influence all his successive 
music. 

Riley’s next big piece, Persian Surgery Dervishes, was developed over lengthy 
concert performances in 1971—2. Though the piece is at first seemingly static, 
the relationship between the repeated organ figures using a cluster of five notes, 
the repeating organ bass on the tape loop and various processing effects on 
Riley’s own mixer build to an intoxicating sound. At the time one critic wrote: 
‘opening the Western sensitivity to the fascination of sound figures which are 
repeated at regular intervals over long periods of time, Terry Riley has created 
an original music based on the principle of evolutive reiteration — a music which 
regenerates infinitely in multiple shades.’ Another reason for its success was just 
intonation. 

Riley states this clearly: ‘All my work from Persian Surgery Dervishes on is in 
just intonation. All the intervals in this tuning are based on mathematical 
proportions and these proportions create resonances, which are sounds that are 
not in the piano instrument when it’s tuned in equal temperament. It is used a 
lot in Eastern music, Indian music, African music, Middle Eastern music and a 
lot of folk music. They play it naturally. My biggest influence was La Monte 
Young, even though Californian Harry Partch was the first to use just 
intonation and build his own instruments in the 1930s. He used long tones 
and when I heard them I realized what its potential was like in Western music. 
La Monte was the first person to make it clear to me.’ 

Riley’s music had always been described in grandiose terms. A Columbia puff 
for Rainbow had trumpeted that it sounded like ‘rock and raga, fugue and fever, 
basic blues and synthesizer Bach’. The sleeve note to Persian Surgery Dervishes 



104 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


talks of a ‘music where classical and non-classical elements fuse in the stimulating 
and lively land of improvisation’. Just intonation went hand in hand with this 
love of composerly improvisation. By adding resistors to a Yamaha organ, Riley 
was able to re tune it. The output was split in two, one recorded and put into 
time-delay after the other. The result was Descending Adoonshine Dervishes (1975), 
another Riley classic, in which sprinkled high keyboard notes had the quality of 
Eastern chimes. 

After this European phase, as Descending was recorded in Berlin and some 
soundtracks were recorded in France, Riley returned to the US to apply his 
Y amaha technique to the studio in the form of Shri Camel , an album of music first 
heard on Radio Bremen in 1976. With sixteen tracks at his disposal he turned in 
four pieces to Columbia records which were far more meditative and influenced 
by Indian raga than Rainbow was over a decade before. Of more import was his 
acquisition of the recently invented Prophet 5 synthesizer, which had five 
voicings and was fully polyphonic (capable of playing more than one note at 
a time). ‘I played organs all during the 70s and got my first synthesizer in 1980. I 
couldn’t retune a synth until the Prophet 5. Chester Wood, who was technical 
engineer, added further oscillators to help this. I loved the Prophet, in fact I ended 
up with two of them and used them like a double manual organ, linked together.’ 
The resultant Songs For The Ten Voices Of The Two Prophets is a famous recording 
made in 1982 in Munich. Not only does it cleverly pun on the use of the Prophet 
synthesizer but is at once a vocal and electronic composition. Drawing on the 
Gospel of Sri Rama Krishna, Riley uses his voice, based on years of training with 
Pandit Pran Nath, supported by the music of the Prophets. It is here that, in the 
deepest sense, the spiritual and the technological collide. 

Riley involved himself occasionally with both Nath and La Monte Young as 
part of the Dream House scene which grew out of the Dia Art Foundation in 
New York. Riley’s Eastern drift could be gauged by his work with sitar master 
Krishna Bhatt. Again the resultant recording, No Man's Land (1984), revealed a 
dazzling synthesizer technique with the Prophet. Riley alludes that this 
happened by chance. ‘This was for a film by Alain Tanner who came to see 
us play in Geneva. Pieces like Jaipur Local are in truth sections from A Rainbow In 
Curved Air .’ The main bulk of this work was an epic cycle titled Songs From The 
Old Country , which Riley began in 1978 and which features the composer on 
acoustic piano and synthesizer, both perfectly in tune with Bhatt’s sitar and 
tablas. The use of modes and precise beat patterns make this phase one of most 
musically satisfying of Riley’s career. 

Another avenue which Riley explored around this time was that of the string 
quartet. At Mills College in the late 1970s he met David Harrington and the 
Kronos Quartet. They asked him to write for them and, liking the sonorities 
produced by strings, he produced Cadenza On The Night Plain , which the 
quartet recorded in 1984. This explored the modular writing of In C, and 
adapted ragtime and Vivaldi in Indian style on the outstanding ballad Mythic 
Birds Waltz. Riley made another move towards pure music on The Harp Of The 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


105 


New Albion (1986), a solo piano dedication to La Monte Young using the pitch 
C sharp and considered an extension of Cadenza in his cycle of music on North 
American mythology. New Albion refers to San Francisco and the harp is 
considered a sacred North American Indian object which the wind can play at 
will. This is just intonation music with a good-time slant. 

His reputation now fully established, Riley was continually busy composing, 
performing and lecturing. He built up a healthy live following in Europe, 
America and Japan. After he had written ten string quartets for Kronos, Salome 
Dances For Peace appeared in 1989, to critical acclaim. Fascinated with Chinese 
music, Riley visited Shanghai in early 1989 to see how his In C would fair in a 
new recording. ‘We made contact with the film orchestra of Shanghai — the one 
that did all the Chinese films, a very good and fine orchestra. This was the first 
time a modern Western piece had been performed in China. When it was 
performed around the country it became known as In China. The recording of 
same ended up being appropriately mixed by Brian Eno and Jon Hassell in 
Hollywood.’ 

Riley had been conjuring up different pieces for different-sounding en- 
sembles — Bulgarian voice choir, saxophone quartet and the brass and percussion 
group Zeitgeist. In 1991 he wrote a large orchestral piece for the St Louis 
Symphony. Though he continued to perform with Krishna Bhatt, Zakir 
Hussain and Pandit Pran Nath, his recorded output became more distilled. 

The Padova Concert (1992), where Riley improvises on solo piano themes 
from The Harp Of The New Albion and Salome Dances For Peace live in Italy, was 
like a bejewelled Eastern haze with spiral upon spiral of exquisite piano notes. 
Two years later Riley’s experiments with brass intervals could be heard on 
Chanting The Light of Foresight, in which he used computers and Hindustani 
scales to communicate the passion of one of Ireland’s most famous sagas, The 
Tain or The Cattle Raid of Cooley, featuring heroism from 500 BC. Maybe 
Riley was returning to his Irish roots? Other memorable pieces from the 90s 
were The Sands, which commingled Oriental, jazz, folk and East African strains 
in a dedication to the dead of the Gulf War, and Cactus Rosary, an almost static 
piece. 

Whether appearing on television or in person, Riley has always commu- 
nicated the hearty humour of an Indian mystic. Back in the early 1960s he told 
Jon Hassell before the realization of In C that he considered Serial music, like 
Freud, to be ‘neurotic’. Today his accessible music and pioneering self-con- 
tained electronic presentation is seen as a benchmark forerunner of DJ culture. 
And of course In C made Minimalism a going concern. What does Riley think 
of his own music? ‘Well, I like what I’m doing. For me music is about how it 
feels to the performer. Yet I think of myself as a composer. I definitely like to 
organize it and of course I need to perform myself in order to do this. Tuning to 
me is everything. The future will bring instruments which will increase our 
colour spectrum in music enormously. These will be acoustic and electronic and 
combinations of the two. This is what fascinates me.’ 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


LISTENING 

In C (Columbia/CBS 1968) 

A Rainbow In Curved Air (Columbia 1969) 

Persian Surgery Dervishes (Sunking 1971) 

Shri Camel (Columbia 1980) 

Descending Moonshine Dervishes (Kuckuck 1982) 

Songs For The Ten Voices Of The Two Prophets (Kuckuck 1982) 

No Man's Land (Plainisphare 1984) 

Cadenza On The Night Plain (Gramavision 1985) 

The Padova Concert (Amiata 1992) 

Chanting The Light Of Foresight (New Albion 1994) 

More than that of any other of the four original Minimalists, Riley’s reputation 
stands on his recordings. In C was first released in 1968 but appeared again on 
Edsel in 1989 and in the Chinese version on Celestial Harmonies the same year. 
Both A Rainbow In Curved Air and Shri Camel were some of the first Columbia 
Masterworks to be transferred to CD in the mid-1980s and still sound superb. 
Shri Camel , which is divided into four pieces with titles like Across The Lake Of 
The Ancient Word and Desert Of Ice , boasts an early use of computerized digital 
delay. Rainbow is an essential late-twentieth-century disc which also features 
Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band. The ‘spatially separated mirror images’ of 
the sleeve note are no idle jest. 

Recorded at the same time was Church of Anthrax (Columbia 1971) with John 
Cale. Its release on disc in 1994 did not improve its leaden quality. Only The 
Hall of Mirrors In The Palace Of Versailles is good and that only for Riley’s ethereal 
saxophone style. Descending Moonshine Dervishes and Songs For The Ten Voices Of 
The Two Prophets were recorded in Berlin and Munich respectively and reveal 
Riley’s transition from Yamaha electronic organ to Prophet 5 synthesizers. The 
latter combines voice and Prophets and, as well as being one of Pdley’s best 
albums, is an influence on Ambient DJs like the UK’s Mixmaster Morris. 

No Man's Land involves themes from both A Rainbow in Curved Air and Shri 
Camel but placed in a raga context. An outstanding disc in every way, it contains 
the solo piano piece Return Of The Dream Collector , which was reprised on 
Cadenza On The Night Plain with the Kronos Quartet the following year. This 
could well be one of the most adventurous and interesting string-quartet albums 
ever recorded. The Padova Concert is like a distillation of musical learning, so 
exquisite is the just intonation playing of themes from The Harp Of The New 
Albion (1984) and Salome Dances For Peace (1988). In 1993 Shanti in Italy reissued 
Persian Surgery Dervishes as a double disc. Chanting The Light Of Foresight features 
the Rova Saxophone Quartet in a series of drones dedicated to Irish legend. 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


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STEVE REICH 

One of the most significant American composer-musicians of the late twentieth 
century, Steve Reich successfully dismantled the cemented bedrock of Western 
music and rebuilt it in startlingly innovative ways. Drawing on aspects of 
African, Balinese, Yemenite and Hebrew sound, he continually fashioned new 
musical models that pushed Western music forward. Having collaborated with 
Terry Riley on In C, Reich moved to tape recorders and invented a phase- 
shifting technique which not only influenced the work of Brian Eno but also 
had an effect on black rap music and the Ambient House movement spear- 
headed by The Orb. In a genuinely absorbed style, Reich synthesizes aspects of 
eighteenth-century classical music, Debussy, twentieth-century jazz, ethnic and 
ritualistic music and the happy musical accidents which occur when one uses 
electronic technology like tape and digital samplers. 

Of great significance to Reich’s life was the divorce of his parents within a 
year of his birth in New York in October 1936. His parents were well-to-do 
Jews whose roots were in Eastern Europe, but the marriage of his strict lawyer 
father to his singer and lyricist mother June was not made in heaven. His 
maternal grandfather’s occupation as a vaudeville pianist seems to have had a 
subconscious effect on the baby Reich, and as he grew up the lengthy train 
journeys between his father’s home in New York and his mother’s in California 
would also have a profound significance. 

Having taken responsibility for his son, Leonard Reich insisted Steve take a 
strict classical line. According to Reich: ‘There was a keenness for Schubert and 
Beethoven so I learned a lot of piano. Up to the age of fourteen I’d heard 
nothing before 1750 or after Wagner.’ A move to Larchmont and its high 
school changed all that. ‘It was then I heard be-bop jazz, Stravinsky’s Rite of 
Spring and the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach. This was a revelation so I decided 
to be a composer. All the music from Haydn to Wagner I just dismissed. My 
modern instincts were drawn to the sounds of contemporary music from 
Debussy, jazz, Africa, Bali to Hebrew chant.’ Reich got into jazz drumming 
and formed a series of groups. Yet his father’s expectations made Reich study 
philosophy at Cornell University between 1953 and 1957. 

There he became fascinated by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgen- 
stein, who had deconstructed language, a fascination that would later lead to 
Reich’s own dismantlings of Western music. A study of music history convinced 
Reich that twentieth-century composition required more clarity and rhythm. 
Though accepted at Harvard for more philosophy, he flew in the face of his 
father and attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York, 
where he met both Philip Glass and Meredith Monk. It was here that Reich 
would strike up a strangely ambivalent relationship with Glass — one of 
attraction and competition that would run through their parallel careers. Reich 
has talked about rivalry over a girlfriend but there were other psychological 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


forces at play. While Reich took in the cool sounds of Miles Davis by night, he 
drank from the lake of Webern and Stockhausen’s total Serialism by day. 
Disenchanted with the Juilliard, he left and married his girlfriend in 1961. Then 
it was off to California, to Mills College in Oakland, to study with Darius 
Milhaud and Luciano Berio. Milhaud’s interest in melody and Berio’s work 
with electronics would have their impact. Two years were spent on Serial 
music, but it wasn’t to Reich’s liking. ‘When I went to music school the music 
that was happening was either like Schoenberg, Boulez or John Cage. Most of it 
had no melodic organization and I found this very unappealing. I found it very 
difficult to write twelve-tone music. I never transposed a row, I just repeated it. 
In doing contemporary music that way I stole some harmony in through the 
back door.’ At that time Reich got a bigger buzz from seeing the way John 
Coltrane generated sheets of sound using modal scales and a steady pulse. Reich 
graduated from Mills in 1963 with a Master’s degree and immersed himself in 
the flowering art and music scene of San Francisco. 

While driving a taxi to make ends meet, he got involved in street theatre and 
experimental film. Following in the footsteps of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre 
Henry, he made tape loops of everyday sounds, ingeniously recording whole 
segments of his cab journeys. He formed a group with himself as drummer 
inspired by free jazz. At one 1964 gig Terry Riley famously walked out, but 
later, after Reich confronted him, Riley asked him to play on In C. The pulsing 
C’s on the piano are credited to him. Reich’s interest was cohesive innovation, 
not what he saw as the anarchy of John Cage. ‘I respected some of the things he 
did with voice and folk idioms but much of my early work was done in 
contradiction to him. I respected his role as a figure but unfortunately I saw 
many fine composers destroyed by his influence.’ 

In 1965 Reich embarked on a series of creations which would make him 
famous. The first, It’s Gonna Rain , was adapted from a snatch of a black 
Pentecostal preacher’s sermon, captured in San Francisco’s Union Square one 
Sunday afternoon. Reich looped the phrase and doubled it, playing two tape 
machines against each other. During seventeen minutes of chaotic discord one 
could hear repeating patterns dropping out of the noise. The time-delay factor 
inherent in this was to have a powerful impact on Brian Eno while he was at 
Winchester Art School. 

By the time Reich moved back to New York in late 1965 he was intent on 
developing his concept of ‘phase shifting’. A group of black youths had been 
beaten up and charged with a shop murder. Asked to write something for a 
benefit, Reich listened to some taped interviews and adopted the phrase ‘I had 
to like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show 
them’ for his purpose. This was said by a nineteen-year-old who had been 
forced to prove that he had been beaten up. By looping this phrase and breaking 
it into fragments, Come Out (1966) graphically illustrated race violence and the 
attendant disbelief by the authorities. Its biggest plus was that here was an 
invented music as the very words became melody. While working at various 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


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part-time jobs — cab driver, social worker, post-office employee — Reich had 
inadvertently blueprinted rap music decades ahead of time. 

Working in his tape studio in Lower Manhattan in 1966, Reich created Piano 
Phase as a live option for one pianist to play against himself He and people like 
Jon Gibson played art galleries and were swept along by the Minimalist art 
movement of the time. By 1967 he had met Philip Glass again and within a year 
they had formed an ensemble. They even started up a furniture-removal 
company to make money. Obvious necessity had bonded them together. 
Reich played with ideas. Typical of the time was Pendulum Music (1968), 
where mikes were swung over amps to create alternating feedback. When they 
stopped swinging the piece finished. With the help of the Bell Telephone 
Laboratories in 1969 he even developed a ‘phase-shifting pulse gate’ to mimic 
his tape experiments live. Most importantly, he published a paper which 
advocated that the process of his music and its content were identical and that 
the compositions once set up ‘run by themselves’. Again this idea would be 
critical to Eno’s invention of Ambient music. 

By the early 1970s the problematic relationship between Reich and Glass had 
become strained to breaking point. Four Organs /Phase Patterns of 1970 was their 
last recorded collaboration. For a long time Reich had read the book Studies in 
African Music by A. M. Jones because he was fascinated by African drumming. ‘I 
found out from this book that it consisted of basic repeating patterns with the 
downbeat not coinciding, twelve-metre and a completely different way of 
putting music together than we were used to. It reminded me of my own work. 
Phase Patterns is drumming on electric organs.’ After seeking advice Reich went 
to the University of Ghana to study African drumming for five weeks in 1970 - 
the most significant step of his career. 

There he studied with the master drummer of the Ewe tribe and played 
alongside various ensembles. In the Ghanaian hocket Reich found an alternating 
rhythmic pattern which suited his own music. After contracting malaria he came 
home early and spent the rest of the year writing Drumming (1971), his first 
assured masterpiece. A key work of Minimalism, Drumming used no changes in 
rhythm or key but a build-up and reduction technique where slight changes in 
pitch and timbre made for a wonderfully bright experience. Hypnotic and 
shimmering, Drumming was a perfect fusion of bongos, marimbas, voices, 
glockenspiels, whistle and piccolo. Reich had admitted that going to Ghana 
‘was a giant pat on the back’ and confirmed his belief that ‘percussion could be 
richer in sound than electronic instruments’. 

Drumming was a touring success. Reich’s 1972 Clapping Music demonstrated 
the purist application of his rhythmic ideas which were applied to two pairs of 
hands. In the fashion of Stockhausen every aspect — size of hands, size of venue, 
balance of amplification, position of hands — was carefully written down. The 
drifting process of his electronic experiments was now fully audible in his 
acoustic settings. Having read and listened to Balinese music for years, and 
openly influenced by Debussy, Reich wrote the mesmerizing sixteen-minute 



no 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ in 1973. Build-up, repeating, 
lengthening and other devices were used to generate cadence after cadence of 
shimmering sounds. Critics were enraptured — Steve Reich in their minds had 
made serious psychedelia. Its most important aspect was the way listening to it 
seemed to lengthen time. Its release by Deutsche Grammophon in 1973 
accompanied by Drumming and Piano Phase placed Reich on the commercial 
map. 

Reich studied Balinese music at Washington University, Seattle, in 1973 and 
at Berkeley World Music Center in 1974. He was interested both in the way 
metal instruments were hit by mallets and the sound of Balinese kotekan , or 
layered rhythms. Debussy was always at the back of his mind. ‘Around the turn 
of the century there was a fork in the road — one way to Wagner, the other to 
Debussy. After a while I became conscious that what I was doing — repeating the 
notes in the middle register, changing the bass notes and chords were right out 
of Debussy’s Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun.' 

Between 1974 and 1976 Reich then wrote his most famous and influential 
piece, Music For 18 Musicians. With an unforgettable opening which featured 
breathy bass clarinets this had similarities to some of the material on Pink Floyd’s 
aural masterpiece of the decade, Dark Side Of The Moon (the to-ing and fro-ing 
in the first ten minutes reminded one of the stereo-effect-laden ‘On The Run’). 
As influential on jazz musicians as on Techno DJs, Music For 18 Musicians was a 
perfect fusion — Balinese percussion; classical instruments like piano, cello, 
violin; Reich’s usual xylophones and female voices. The pulsating opening, 
which rose and fell in a sequence of eleven chords, was breathtaking. Nearly an 
hour long, the work builds on these chords before returning to the opening. 
The sounds of Africa and Bali are there, but so is the sound of twelfth- century 
sacred chanting. According to Reich, the stretching of the chords becomes a 
pulsing cantus for the whole piece. 

The uncanny brilliance of Music For 18 Musicians brought Reich mass fame. 
Concerts were sold out and the classic 1978 ECM album of the piece was a big 
seller. Though offered thousands of dollars to write scores, Reich was having a 
different awakening through his personal life. Back in 1963 he had experienced 
a painful divorce. In 1974 he had met Beryl Korot, a radical and progressive 
video artist who was also serious about studying the Jewish faith. Reich plunged 
into the Kabbalah, Torah and Talmud — literature essential to Jewish orthodoxy. 
His studies brought him into contact with Hebrew singing, or cantillation. 
Married to Korot in 1976, he went the following year to Israel to record these 
chants from men steeped in the tradition, some of whom came from Yemen. 
Studying the results, Reich realized the cellular nature of the music — how small 
things put together paint the overall picture. 

Contractual demands in Holland, Germany and the US meant that he had to 
come up with three fair-sized works in as many years. Music For A Large Ensemble 
(1978) was scored for thirty players, including winds, brass and strings. Reich 
used the canonic system of repetition to create a wave-like motion. Octet (1979), 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


111 


which is for many more instruments than eight, with players doubling, included 
woodwinds, pianos and vibraphones. ‘After the premier of Octet , a guy came up 
to me backstage, introduced himself as Brian Eno and told me how much he 
had enjoyed the concert!’ Reich continued to expand his instrumental forces 
with the mellifluous Variations For Winds, Strings And Keyboards - a fully 
repetitive orchestral piece for the San Francisco Symphony. 

On a roll, Reich pushed forward and incorporated his Hebrew studies into 
Tehillim in 1981. Based on ancient Hebrew psalms, this work nevertheless 
included electronic instruments, aspects of the gamelan, folk music and the 
baroque. Reich’s move to the quiet of the Vermont countryside inspired 
1983’s The Desert Music. Lasting nearly an hour, this piece incorporates Reich’s 
ensemble into a large orchestra. A chorus of twenty-seven voices was used to 
enunciate the apocalyptic poetry of William Carlos Williams, which centred 
on the moral emptiness of technological progress for its own sake. According 
to Reich: ‘I was concerned with the constant flickering of attention between 
what the words mean and how they sound.’ He wrote a music inspired by 
vistas he had seen in the real deserts of New Mexico and California. 
Consisting of five movements, the work had a Romantic lushness under- 
pinned by pulse and repetition and Reich’s favourite ethnic patterns. As well 
as using synthesizers and electronics it even included a siren a la Varese that 
Reich had heard one day in Vermont. It had a Buddhist quality and the 
whole glistens most tellingly in the delicious instrumental lead-up to the vocal 
section of the final movement. 

When looking at Reich’s life it is evident that the music and experience are 
one. His fierce commitment to creativity is evidenced in the Vermont period of 
the 1980s, which produced Vermont Counterpoint (1982), New York Counterpoint 
(1985), Sextet (1985), Three Movements (1986), Six Marimbas (1986), Electric 
Counterpoint (1987), Four Sections (1987) and Different Trains (1988). The 
Counterpoint series and Six Marimbas saw Reich return to trance elements in 
his music. Electric Counterpoint became a famous piece owing to its masterly 
performance by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. Ten guitar parts and two bass parts 
were pre-recorded, over which Metheny improvised an eleventh guitar part. 
The gradual changes and trance-like elements reached a climax in the third 
movement when Metheny tipped into rock territory with some great chordal 
swipes. The music was so good that The Orb sampled it for live House concerts 
in the early 1990s. 

For Reich his most significant work of that period was Different Trains, which 
eventually won him a Grammy Award in 1990. In 1985 the Kronos Quartet 
had asked him to write string music. Reich looked back at Bartok but grew 
frustrated. He started using his favourite sampling keyboards to generate lines 
based on patterns alternating between speech and string music. Reflecting on his 
childhood, he decided to evoke the very strong experience of travelling back 
and forth across the US by train to see his divorced parents. Between 1939 and 
1942 he travelled for many hours at a time with his governess while in Germany 


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less fortunate Jewish children were ferried to their deaths in concentration 
camps on very different trains - hence the title. 

Reich was also entranced by the success of Stockhausen’s classic Gesang der 
Junglinge ( Song Of The Youths) and went out to record his governess and a retired 
pullman porter. He also sought archive recordings of Holocaust survivors and 
found authentic train sounds from the 1930s and 40s. Samples of speech were 
notated, the lot was put on to tape via samplers and computers and given to the 
Kronos Quartet, who copied the speech melodies on their strings in an 
overdubbing process which occurred four times. Lasting twenty-seven minutes, 
Different Trains was an astonishing realization of both America and Europe 
before and after the Second World War. It invented a new documentary music 
and rightly made Reich famous worldwide. ‘It drew a line in the sand and 
connected all the work I’d been trying to do for years,’ the composer said in 
1991. ‘It was an homage to those people — a memorial to those no longer 
around and to those living.’ 

Having started with tape, Reich was now using a combination of Apple 
Macintosh computers and Casio and Digidesign samplers. He saw synthesizers as 
a marriage of convenience but saw samplers ‘as real sound, the sound of 
somebody’s voice. They have split-second timing and you can contribute to 
something with them in an instrumental way.’ Fired by the success of Different 
Trains , Reich wanted to make a large-scale work based on speech melodies. He 
and his wife decided to collaborate on a huge piece which took as its basis the 
Cave of Machpela on the West Bank in Hebron (a site of dual worship for 
Muslims and Jews). Various bodies, including the Andy Warhol Foundation, 
provided a total of $1 million for the project. Working from 1989 to 1993, 
Reich and Beryl Korot interviewed people in Jerusalem, Palestine, Egypt and 
the US and asked each about the significance of figures like Abraham and 
Ishmael, from the Bible and the Koran respectively. The answers were edited 
and provided the basis for the music played by his ensemble. Korot worked hard 
to get the images arrayed across five eight-foot by ten-foot video screens in a 
multi-screen process she had templated in the 1970s. 

When I saw The Cave performed in Amsterdam in 1993 I confessed to being 
impressed by its rigour and complexity. Ensemble followed speech. Hebrew 
cantillation was also recorded, as was that of the Muqris, the holy chanters of the 
Koran. According to Korot: ‘We could not fool around with the Koran. In the 
first act there was no problem in making up musical melodies to the Bible. But 
the Koranic text has to stand alone. In the second act Steve’s music precedes the 
Islamic text!’ 

The Cave was definitely Reich’s highest-tech endeavour, using the latest 
visual synchronization and computer techniques. Costing nearly $250,000 per 
performance in the US, it was not a great commercial success. Artistically it was 
a triumph. At the end of the first act there was a memorable moment when the 
cameras panned the interior of the mosque at Hebron, twenty-five miles south 
of Jerusalem. The resonating sounds of prayer made an A-minor drone which 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


113 


was replayed by the ensemble. The result was an incredible Ambient experi- 
ence, tantalizing in its exoticism, hypnotic in its effect. 

Though the healing effects of The Cave were short-lived (a Jewish fanatic 
would kill twenty-nine Muslims in early 1994), Reich had shown that 
Minimalism could produce new forms without resorting to the old structures 
of opera, a pet hate. ‘Most opera, whether new or old, is leaden, old-fashioned 
and boring. There have been some changes in the style of voice plus in the way 
Kurt Weill presented things, but too many accept the idea of the orchestra in the 
pit and too many new operas are made for superficial reasons. Tl%e Cave was 
about folklore. And to me folklore is technology. We live in an urban folklore 
which is samplers and drum machines. Even the way The Cave used video was 
very folk. It’s folk music for now.’ 

Reich has always had an ambivalent attitude to the music business, often 
finding the whole promotional interview process a chore. When I asked him in 
1991 about his relationship with Minimalism he told me: ‘I learned something 
from Terry Riley and La Monte Young. Philip Glass and John Adams learned 
something from me. The rest is journalism.’ (Notice the quip against Glass, a 
remark that could only fuel what had become a legendary rivalry.) Often Reich 
has maintained that he really doesn’t use technology. During the same interview 
he stated: ‘I’ve been working for twenty years acoustically. In the end I use 
nothing but mikes!’ Having written Four Sections in the 1980s, he considered it a 
goodbye to a very conservative decade. ‘I’ve always had good relationships with 
ensembles but difficulties with orchestras. Orchestras are elephants!’ And that 
after the London Symphony Orchestra did great justice to his Four Sections in 
1990. 

After The Cave Reich seemed to mellow. Returning to New York, he 
worked with his wife in a studio full of percussion equipment plus his favourite 
samplers and computers. City Life , a complex speech-melody composition based 
on New York, was released in 1996. One of the sharpest minds of twentieth- 
century music, Reich is a genuinely invigorating musician whose creations 
never seem to pale. He has drawn from Debussy and Ravel, Satie and Mahler, 
the Far East and Stockhausen. He has used technology to create new music and 
not fallen prey to mere imitation or exoticism for its own sake. Back in 1993, in 
a lengthy interview, he had this to say to me about modern music: ‘I hope 
there’s always a two-way street between popular music and other types of 
music. If popular music can take something from me. I can take something from 
them like the sampling keyboard. I’m not interested in electronic music in a 
laboratory kind of way. Once it hit the streets it signified a number of things — 
machines do work and are resonant in our culture. I’m happier to be part of an 
ongoing stream of things rather than being off in a corner. There’s a lot of cross- 
fertilization now but that doesn’t mean that everybody has the same background 
or thinks about the same body of work. House musicians don’t rely on notation 
but on improvisation in playing. In Africa the oral tradition was what was 
important for passing on rhythmic complexities. Yet the intricacies of harmony 



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did not occur in African music. Now each culture makes up for its own by 
taking from other cultures which is wonderful.’ 

LISTENING 

Drumming , Six Pianos (Deutsche Grammophon 1974) 

Music For 18 Musicians (ECM 1978) 

Sextet , Six Marimbas (Elektra-Nonesuch 1986) 

Early Works (Elektra-Nonesuch 1987) 

Different Trains , Electric Counterpoint (Elektra-Nonesuch 1989) 

Four Sections , Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ (Elektra-Nonesuch 
1990) 

Variations For Winds, Strings And Keyboards (Deutsche Grammophon 1994) 
Steve Reich: Works 1965-1995 (Nonesuch 1996) 

Reich: Remixed (Nonesuch 1999) 

The Deutsche Grammophon disc Drumming was originally the 1974 triple-album 
boxed set which made Reich a force to be reckoned with in the record business. 
As well as containing vintage Hamburg recordings the set contains superb self- 
penned sleeve notes. Included is Reich’s famous 1968 manifesto ‘Music As A 
Gradual Process’, where some of his most famous quotes are to be found, 
including his maxim concerning ‘closely detailed listening’. Eloquently he 
expands the idea — Tike pulling back a swing, releasing it and observing it 
gradually come to rest . . . turning over an hourglass and watching the sand slowly 
run through to the bottom . . . placing your feet in the sand by the ocean’s edge 
and watching, feeling and listening to the waves as they gradually bury them.’ 
Also he alludes to the important shift of focus away from the personal experience 
of music and outwards to the impersonal presence of the music itself. 

Music For 1 8 Musicians is one of those twentieth-century classics that keeps 
selling. Loved by musicians and DJs from all genres, it is the only place to start. If 
you only ever have one Reich disc, then the ECM one with its Arabic-styled 
woven cover should be it. Six Marimbas is an intoxicating skein of warbly beats 
that build up and float down as the instruments interplay and unlock the 
variations of the eight-tap rhythm. Early Works contains It’s Gonna Rain , Come 
Out , Piano Phase and Clapping Music from the period 1965—72, and is a good way 
of hearing Reich’s inventive phase-shifting procedures. 

The pairing of Different Trains with Electric Counterpoint is great value as it gives 
two very extreme aspects of Reich’s art - the complex and the simple — on one 
disc. After Music For 18 Musicians this is your essential second purchase. Another 
great recording contains Four Sections and Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And 
Organ. The first piece was Reich’s ‘hail and farewell to the orchestra’. 
Encouraged to write it for the London Symphony by conductor Michael 
Tilson Thomas, he pitted sections of the orchestra against each other in a similar 
fashion to his earlier phase-shifting experiments on tape. The results bore 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


115 


resemblances to the work of Debussy and Mahler. In this performance by his 
ensemble Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ is a luminous work as 
fluttering marimbas, glockenspiels and vibraphone are augmented by repeating 
cadences of female voice and electronic organ. The original version can be heard 
on the 1994 DG disc, which is recommended for the inclusion of Variations For 
Winds, Strings And Keyboards, recorded in 1983 in San Francisco and some of the 
most entrancing music Reich has ever written. Works is a summary of the period 
1965—95 which contains new versions of classics such as Music For 18 Musicians . 
It also offers the top-notch re-recorded version of Drumming from 1987 as well 
as appraisals from Michael Tilson Thomas and John Adams and an interview 
with Jonathan Cott. Budget-priced and including archive photographs, this ten- 
CD set is an essential Reich document. Reich: Remixed is a fascinating blend of 
Reich’s music by the likes of Tranquility Bass, DJ Spooky, Coldcut and Howie 
B in the context of late-twentieth-century Acid, Techno, Hardbeat and 
Ambient turntable styles. 


BRIAN ENO 

One of the pivotal figures of twentieth- century music, Brian Eno introduced a 
popular voice to a century of musical change. By relocating the essentials of 
Minimalism in rock music he gave it enormous mainstream exposure. A 
maverick producer and theoretician, he showed that the ideas of John Cage, 
La Monte Y oung and Steve Reich had far-reaching consequences when utilized 
by non-musicians or those who favoured intuition over scripted music. In every 
sphere he had success: in composing, producing, collaboration and gallery 
installations. In the late 1970s he directly influenced record companies to take 
note of new Minimalist musicians in both the UK and the US. As a record 
producer he brought Minimalism to bear on rock music, his work with David 
Bowie in 1977 (Low) and U2 in 1987 ( The Joshua Tree) generating two of the 
most relevant records of the century. Like Stockhausen, he believed thoroughly 
in electronic progress but always placed emotion and sheer good taste above the 
inclination to merely dabble. One of his essential contributions was to highlight 
the importance of the recording studio as an essential part of the musical 
experience; a veritable instrument, which in the hands of the right person could 
work wonders. Between 1975 and 1978 he defined the word Ambient in 
popular consciousness as a music which was ‘as the colour of the light or the 
sound of the rain’, a music defined by his famous maxim ‘as ignorable as it is 
interesting’. Into a popular-music market high on brash excess and short 
attention spans, Eno brought space and time, time to think, time to reflect. 
For many people his records and interviews were a doorway into serious music 
and philosophy. This very book you are now reading would not have 
developed had it not been for my encounter with Eno’s music in my youth. 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Indeed beyond that, the whole New Age and Ambient House music genres 
simply couldn’t have existed without his influence. 

Eno was born in the small estuary town of Woodbridge in Suffolk in 1948. 
His father was a postman. Neither of his parents was musical. His grandfather, 
also a postman, built organs and played the bassoon and other wind instruments 
— hence Eno’s early inclination to disassemble and reassemble tape recorders. 
Eno was one child in four, born to country working folk in a traditional English 
community. The unusual name, Eno, has Belgian origins in the area known as 
East Flanders. Woodbridge itself is an interesting place, its small square featuring 
a medieval church and an old long-hall tavern, its walls adorned with old 
photographs, some of Eno’s family. Walking along the River Deben one is 
struck by its essential quietness, the sound of waterbirds and the tinkling of sail 
cords on the masts of countless boats. A short drive away is Dunwich, where an 
ancient and important town succumbed to successive landslides and was 
submerged in the sea, so that only a church, a pub and a few houses survive. 
The sights and sounds of this quiet English setting would later impact directly on 
Eno’s Ambient music. 

Raised a Catholic, Eno was educated by the De la Salle order in nearby 
Ipswich. He even bears their moniker as part of his lengthy middle name: Peter 
George St John le Baptiste de la Salle. Eno has spoken to me of the importance 
of his strict Catholic education, the way it gave him no wishy-washy options. 
‘When they said no you can’t, they meant no you can’t.’ Hence Eno has always 
been an option-limiter and prefers working under conditions of constraint 
rather than freedom. Again his derision of over-complicated synthesizers and 
studio technique may well derive from his childhood. Eno was taught by the 
order’s nuns and brothers for eleven years from 1953. The special atmosphere 
conjured by the weekly Latin Mass would leave a lasting impression on the boy. 

Another important facet of Eno’s growing up was Woodbridge’s proximity 
to two US Air Force bases. Here airmen would be privy to the latest records 
from the States and during the rock and roll era this brought the 45rpm single 
right into Eno’s home. The American bars and coffee shops all had jukeboxes 
and Eno’s elder sister went out with an American and brought home loads of 
new 45s, some of which Eno would play over and over again on his parents’ 
auto-change record player. His own response to this new kind of space 
generated by rock and roll recording would again be fed directly into his 
Ambient music. ‘I lived in rural Suffolk but there were two very large American 
air bases within five miles of where I lived and the music we heard was urban 
American pop music. The contrast between that and the environment I lived in 
was extremely strange to me. I had no context for this music whatsoever, 
particularly American doo-wop. Subsequent to that I heard Little Richard, Fats 
Domino, Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley.’ 

Other musical influences were the easy-listening sounds of Ray Conniffand 
the hymnal rolls on his parents’ player piano. The latter would be reflected in 
Eno’s love of Gospel singing, which he performed in a short-lived teenage vocal 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


117 


combo. Eno’s two sisters and younger brother all approached music from a 
more or less classical perspective. He, on the other hand, did so from the 
prospect of ‘sound’ itself. His way into sound was technology. His way into 
technology was technique and his way into that was the English art-school 
system of the 1960s. Though his parents encouraged him to get a safe job in a 
bank, Eno was determined to go to art school. 

Ipswich Art School, where Eno did foundation studies from 1964 to 1966, 
was a hotbed of experimentalism. Pupils and teachers colluded in pulling down 
the walls of preconception. Eno was particularly affected by the school’s head, 
Roy Ascott, a teacher interested in cybernetics (the study of the interface 
between machine and biology), who purposefully ‘disorientated’ his pupils into 
new ways of thinking. Another teacher, Tom Phillips, influenced Eno’s 
experiments with tape recorders, usually recording one sound over and over 
to create new textures. Quickly Eno began to see the ‘process’ of making 
something to be more interesting than the end result. Like John Adams, he was 
influenced by John Cage’s book Silence. He felt that Cage had a deep under- 
standing of musical possibilities in time and space. At one point in the book 
Cage discussed Erik Satie’s concept of ‘furniture music’, his hilarious notion to 
fill up the silences of boring dinner parties with melodious music. Here Cage 
talks of Satie’s music mingling with the ‘Ambient sounds’. Eno was also greatly 
taken by Cage’s use of ‘chance’, specifically the application of the Chinese I 
Ching , or Book of Changes, to determine musical outcome. This practice would 
be mirrored in Eno’s use of his own Oblique Strategies oracle cards in his music 
of the 1970s. 

Also at Ipswich, Eno was impressed by the Dada and Surrealist movement of 
the early twentieth century and its interest in sound generation and automatic 
writing. The unconscious product of dreams that was a fundamental in Surrealist 
art would be transferred to his approach to composition — the precept that the 
work should define itself as much as possible. He saw Allen Ginsberg perform 
his ‘stream of consciousness’ poetry but was equally impressed by the structure 
and intensity of a Buddy Holly performance where the entire band performed 
through a single Vox amplifier. This balance between precision and indeter- 
minacy would lend Eno’s music an air of both science and art, a quality of 
spontaneous modernity which made it instantly attractive. 

Moving to Winchester Art School in 1966, Eno developed his ideas. He 
created performances of both paintings and scores, and formed a group, 
Merchant Taylor’s Simultaneous Cabinet, from student friends. Performances 
involved instructions, locations and ideas similar to those used by John Cage in 
the 1930s and 40s. He heard the dronal music of The Velvet Underground and 
enthused about their use of sound and repetition. Eno also admired La Monte 
Young, both studying and performing his Minimalist music. In 1967 he gave his 
first public performance, a rendition of Young’s X For Henry Flynt where he 
banged on a piano for an hour. The idea was to repeat a note or cluster of notes 
over and over until something happened. Eno evolved his first great maxim 



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from this experience: ‘Repetition is a form of change.’ During his stay at 
Winchester he was also elected student union president. Eno graduated with a 
Diploma in Fine Art in 1969. 

Immediately afterwards he joined the Scratch Orchestra, made up of 
musicians and non-musicians led by Cornelius Cardew, a Stockhausen pupil 
and Maoist whose music was both structured and improvised. Also in 1969, Eno 
teamed up with Gavin Bryars’s Portsmouth Sinfonia, an ensemble formed at 
Portsmouth Polytechnic out of mostly non-musicians. For Eno both these 
experiments helped him to see how far his ideas would stretch in a new musical 
setting. In 1971 he saw Philip Glass perform Music With Changing Parts at the 
Royal College of Art in London. The use of repetition and the sheer volume of 
the electric and acoustic instruments impressed him greatly. Importantly, glam- 
rock star David Bowie was also in the audience. In that year Eno appeared for 
the first time on record, in a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Cardew’s The 
Great Learning , a seven-paragraph set of instructions mixing music with left- 
wing polemic. 

According to Michael Nyman, Eno had married young at art school and had 
a young daughter. By now twenty- two, Eno was living in South London and 
considering a career as an art teacher when one day he took an underground 
train and met saxophonist Andy Mackay. They had met before at Reading 
University and Mackay had studied music with both Morton Feldman and John 
Cage in Italy. Mackay talked about a new group and the VCS3 synthesizer, both 
of which Eno found interesting. Using his batch of tape recorders from student 
days, Eno and the group rehearsed. Soon Roxy Music would become the most 
talked-about group in the UK. With their mix of glam-rock, Hollywood glitz, 
clever lyrics, decadent sound and the crooning voice of Bryan Ferry, the band 
met with instant success. They signed to Island Records and their first album, 
Roxy Music , went to number one in 1972. A single, ‘Virginia Plain’, drenched in 
Eno’s space-age synthesizer treatments of Mackay ’s saxophone and Phil Man- 
zanera’s guitar, was also an instant hit. Eno’s stage appearance - full make-up, 
feather boa and shiny satin — was made all the more shocking by TV coverage. 
Another album, For Your Pleasure (1973), with its trademark glamour-girl cover, 
featured a similar mix, Eno’s synth-twiddling and general ideas lending a strong 
whiff of Minimalism to the extended instrumental passages. But by the summer 
of 1973 he was bored with the constant touring and adulation and wanted a 
change. With no radical alterations in the group’s direction coming from the 
leader, Bryan Ferry, Eno simply departed after a concert. 

Eno still sees Roxy Music as crucial to his career. In 1992 he told me: ‘As a 
result of going into a subway station and meeting Andy I joined Roxy Music 
and as a result of that I have a career in music I wouldn’t have had otherwise. If 
I’d walked ten yards further on the platform or missed that train or been in the 
next carriage I probably would have been an art teacher now.’ Even during the 
Roxy era, Eno was already experimenting with automatic systems for gen- 
erating music. When, in the early 1970s, he heard Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain , 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


119 


he was thunderstruck by his simple use of tape-delay montage. In the autumn of 
1972 Eno invited the guitarist Robert Fripp to his home to record ‘The 
Heavenly Music Corporation’, twenty-one minutes of looped guitar notes 
using two tape machines rigged to create drones, backwash and an almost 
infinite repeat-delay effect. Released shortly after he left Roxy Music on the 
album No Pussyfooting, this new approach led to Eno’s being hailed for bringing 
Reich’s Minimalist technique into rock for the first time. 

Eno was also involved in a solo rock career with Island and two albums were 
released by 1974. Yet finances were limited and his health suffered. That year he 
was rushed to hospital with a collapsed lung. Despite these set-backs he 
completed two collaborations with his heroes John Cale and Nico, formerly 
of The Velvet Underground, and even performed with them at London’s 
Rainbow Theatre. On the intellectual front Eno had absorbed strong ideas 
about the dynamics of organizations from Norbert Wiener (the American 
mathematician and inventor of cybernetics), Stafford Beer (a management gum) 
and Morse Peckham (an American professor of English). From Peckham he 
drew the conclusion that art had a biological quality. Beer’s thinking led Eno to 
suspect that any system creates its own dynamics, and gave him the idea for the 
maxim ‘honour thy error as a hidden intention’. In 1986 Eno clarified this: ‘The 
work starts to define you rather than you define it. It starts to tell you what you 
are doing.’ Eno was set to bring everything he knew to bear on the invention of 
his very special brand of Ambient music. 

What was to be one of the most creative years in Eno’s life, 1975, began with 
an accident. In January he was knocked down by a taxi on the way home from a 
studio session in London. Hospitalized with a suspected skull fracture, he 
eventually recuperated at home in Maida Vale. One day a singer friend, Judy 
Nylon, visited him with a gift of eighteenth-century harp music. After she’d 
gone he put the record on but failed to adjust the volume properly. Too weak to 
readjust the hi-fi, he lay down and listened to the quiet music mingling with the 
environment — the sounds of rain outside and the approaching darkness. Early 
that summer he applied the idea of quiet, environmental music to a series of 
sounds he’d fed into a synthesizer. Rigging up a delay system using the two 
Revox tape machines (as on No Pussyfooting), he wished to make some 
background music for himself and Robert Fripp. With the occasional adjust- 
ment of timbre through a graphic equalizer he created a soothing, balming 
music which stayed mostly in the same key and sounded like horns heard 
through a soft fog. The resultant album, Discreet Music, said by Robert Fripp to 
be made by Eno while they were having tea in his kitchen, became one of the 
enduring icons of Ambient instrumental music. Favoured both by the public 
and the artist, it was, in Eno’s view, a perfect example of ‘automatic music’ - a 
successful realization of Steve Reich’s ideas on musical process of more than a 
decade earlier. 

Back on form, Eno spent the summer in Island studios recording Another 
Green World, his third commercial solo album, but this time a mixture of vocal 



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and instrumental concerns. Applying Stafford Beer’s ideas, he welcomed the 
chaos of bringing together a group of widely differing musicians, like violist 
John Cale, Fripp again and Genesis pop drummer Phil Collins, and putting 
them in a studio with no score. The instrumentation of treated guitars, piano, 
fretless bass, percussion, synthesizers and other studio effects was like that of an 
ensemble, with Eno the conductor of them all as he sat at the twenty-four-track 
mixing desk. He also used his Oblique Strategies cards, made up of maxims 
gleaned from years of study, to issue instructions to the players to bring out new 
ideas from them. The instrumental passages on the record were so inspired that 
they attracted comparisons with Satie and Debussy. There was a strange other- 
worldliness to the record, a feeling that the music was coming from somewhere 
new and disappearing into some other sphere. For Eno it perfectly suited his 
ideal of creating a sense of new acoustic space that only existed when one heard 
the recording. Over time Another Green World became Eno’s most lauded pop 
album. 

The third important release of 1975 was the Fripp and Eno collaboration 
Evening Star. Again this featured the tape-delay system of No Pussyfooting , but 
with a greater synthesizer element. There was the melodic beauty of Fripp ’s 
guitar and excerpts from Discreet Music, but the album’s triumph was ‘An Index 
Of Metals’, a highly dense Ambient creation taking up an entire LP side. This 
piece entranced the listener into a form of contemplation and successfully 
altered his or her perception of real time through a slowing-down process. By 
increasing delay lines Eno achieved the same effect as the earlier Minimalist 
works of La Monte Young and Terry Riley. The beautiful album cover by 
Eno’s artist friend Peter Schmidt would come to symbolize Ambient music. 

Yet another signifier of the importance of 1975 to Eno’s music was his label 
Obscure Records, on which Discreet Music had been released. Eno had been 
tantalizing Island with a project to showcase instrumental music for years and in 
1975 the label went for it. From late 1975 to 1978 ten records would be released 
in characteristic black sleeves, each one revealing a different aspect of New 
Music. Eno’s old friend from the Portsmouth Sinfonia, Gavin Bryars, was 
featured on the first release, The Sinking Of The Titanic, and there were 
subsequent releases of music by John Adams, David Toop, John Cage and 
Michael Nyman. The quality of this music was that it was unobtrusive and Eno 
wrote at the time that the concept of mood music or ‘muzak, once it sheds its 
connotations of aural garbage, might enjoy a new and fruitful lease of life’. 
Michael Nyman and others saw Eno repaying the intellectual stimulus afforded 
by the likes of Cage and Tom Phillips through the medium of a commercial 
record. Irma, a floating ‘opera’ by Tom Phillips, was brought to a wide public 
attention in 1978 through its release on Obscure Records. In fact all of the 
Obscure artists were exposed to a wider public because of the Eno connection, 
which always carried the allure of ‘interesting’, one of Eno’s favourite words. 

In 1976 Eno moved closer and closer to a music of ‘perceptual drift’. That 
year he released the first of his Music For Films albums in a limited quantity of 



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121 


500. Wrapped in a plain sleeve, it was ostensibly for film directors. Its contents in 
parts sounded like backing tracks from Another Green World , for Eno was always 
prone to building up a store of unused sounds. One track, ‘Slow Water’, had the 
backdrop of a distant plane disappearing into the horizon. This very effect 
would be later used on Eno’s second collaboration with David Bowie, 'Heroes’. 
In fact his work with David Bowie from late 1976 to 1977 was a critical career 
change and would again bring Minimalist ideas to an even wider public as 
Bowie was the bona-fide rock superstar of the 1970s. Bowie’s drug and 
relationship problems had soared out of control in Los Angeles and his flight 
to the cooler climes of Europe — he eventually settled in Berlin in the autumn of 
1976 — was to have far-reaching consequences for popular music. In search of a 
new direction, Bowie approached the German groups Kraftwerk and Tangerine 
Dream for help and in desperation rang Eno in London. 

Eno’s arrival in Cologne was a gift for Bowie. Working initially in the studio 
of the legendary German producer Conny Plank, they started to put together 
their first LP. Low was very much a dual affair - Bowie’s condensed vocal 
personality over the first side, Eno’s ethereal Ambience spread throughout the 
second. Sessions were also done in Paris, but the bulk of the record was done at 
Berlin’s Hansa By The Wall studios. Eno played a variety of synthesizers and 
used a series of electronic effects. His personality is unmistakable in the slow- 
moving ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ on Side One, the song swimming 
in a bright, lustrous balm. Another track, ‘A New Career In A New Town’, 
begins in the dream world of Eno’s diaphanous textures, its repetitive me- 
tronomic beat a straight tribute to Minimalism. But it was Side Two that made 
Low famous, its Ambient instrumentals introducing literally millions of young 
people to the sound of New Music. Eno has said that he literally saved 
‘Warszawa’ and ‘Art Decade’ from the scrap-heap and mixed and remixed 
them during Bowie’s frequent absences from the studio. The results were 
astonishing and today Low is considered Bowie’s greatest work of art. But at the 
time people were horrified. Bowie’s label, RCA, was nervous about even 
releasing the record. In January 1977 it was issued, but the music press thought it 
decadent and reeking of Bowie’s negative fixation with Germany. It was down 
to Philip Glass, who recognized kindred spirits in Eno and Bowie (who 
themselves had cited Glass as an influence on the album, having both seen 
him perform in London in 1970), to hail it as ‘a work of genius’. And to prove 
how close Eno’s instincts were to cultural change, the album automatically hit 
the top of the charts. 

At the time Eno saw music without focus as the way forward. He had spent 
the previous two years recording and re-recording in London and Cologne 
when he released Before And After Science (1977), the last of his quartet of pop 
vocal records. Again chance and spontaneity were harnessed together with the 
help of a motley crew of musicians. Eno spent more and more time on studio 
processes and a huge quantity of material was generated. The album is famous 
for the way it begins in an energetic fashion and slowly tapers out, Side Two 



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literally drifting out of earshot. Critically acclaimed, Before And After Science 
included the German musicians Jaki Liebezeit, Holger Czukay and Cluster - all 
of whom had been influenced by Stockhausen. At the time, and like Bowie, 
Eno was impressed with German music and hailed Music From Harmonia (a 1973 
synthesizer-based work featuring the twin talents of Neu! and Cluster) as the 
best album he’d ever heard. So taken was he with Cluster that in June 1977 he 
recorded an album with them: Cluster And Eno , an electro-acoustic tone poem. 

Being in Germany during the summer, Eno went back to Berlin and Bowie, 
arriving at the Hansa studios with his Oblique Strategies cards and notebooks. 
Eno on synthesizers, keyboards and treatments worked hand in hand with 
Bowie on their second album of 1977, ( Heroes\ At one stage they rang guitarist 
Robert Fripp to come over and lend them a hand. The result of this specific 
request was the finest single song of Bowie’s career and huge kudos for Eno’s 
background sounds, which proved that Ambience could be loud and potent 
too. That song was ‘Heroes’, released in German, English and French as a single. 
Like Low, the album was divided between vocal and instrumental music, its 
second side (dedicated to German electronic groups Kraftwerk and Neu!) 
awesome in its conception, with Eno’s influence readily audible. ‘Sense of 
Doubt’ was a Gothic creation with its Chopin-like funereal piano. ‘Moss 
Garden’ was pure inspiration, Eno’s fading aircraft sound adapted from Music For 
Films and set against Bowie’s plucked Japanese koto. ‘ Heroes' was a critical and 
commercial success and the amount of attention Eno garnered in 1977 meant 
that by the end of that year he was in a better position than ever to push his own 
music to its very limits. 

Eno would later say that from the mid-1970s he was ‘working more and 
more in a spherative way where I’m very definitely trying to make a place’. His 
first important release of 1978 was Music For Films, which was put out on EG 
Records now distributed by Poly dor. For this update and expansion of the 1976 
limited edition a series of haiku-like instrumental atmospheres were deployed. 
The musicians were familiar from Eno’s solo pop albums but the contents were 
epiphanous. 

In the summer of 1978 Eno moved to New York, settling in Downtown 
Manhattan’s art district. Having for years made Ambient music, that autumn he 
finally called his instrumental music by that name. Music For Airports was a 
milestone in Eno’s career, a distillation of years of thought and experiment, a 
virtual manifesto of what Minimalist technique, electronics and studio produc- 
tion could produce. 

Ambient 1: Music For Airports, to give it its full title, was the gauntlet Eno 
threw down in his Ambient quest. The cover looked like a blown-up sample of 
an Ordnance Survey map, its back a series of drawings that could have come 
from the pen of Stockhausen or Cage. The four tracks had no titles. The first 
consisted of Robert Wyatt playing some beautiful piano and Eno leaving lots of 
space for the odd soft electronic effect. The second track was incredible: as if the 
angels were singing from his childhood, you heard harmonized voices just 



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chanting single notes, but in such a way that as the sound went through Eno’s 
equipment it was subtly electro nicized. Track three mixed the elements of the 
first two and the final mix had all the qualities of a sparsely played church organ 
and looked back to the horn timbres of Discreet Music. Music For Airports was as 
much about silence as sound and is considered today to be a twentieth- century 
classic. On the inside cover of the album Eno laid out his Ambient manifesto. 
He divorced his work from mindless canned Muzak and talked about Ambient 
music containing a ‘sense of doubt and uncertainty’, its intention being ‘to 
induce calm and a space to think’. The essay ended with his most famous axiom 
of all, that Ambient music ‘must be as ignorable as it is interesting’. Later Eno 
would talk of how Music For Airports was actually made: ‘It was mostly physical 
loops of tape. In the case of piano notes I would wait for the note to completely 
decay well beyond the threshold of normal audibility and cut the loop there. 
One of the tape loops was seventy-nine feet long and the other eighty-three 
feet. I would then synchronize five or six loops and get a repetition which 
would generate an unpredictable sound or texture which always changes.’ 

Eno spent the years 1978—83 in the US, but made trips to Europe, Africa and 
Southeast Asia. Another German collaboration with Cluster (Dieter Moebius 
and Hans-Joachim Roedelius) came out in 1978. Evocatively titled After The 
Heat , the record had a blue cover that mirrored the cool contents: piano moods, 
electronic sketches and what would be Eno’s final vocal performances for over a 
decade. The Ambient song ‘The Belldog’ surfed on a sea of bright, tinkly 
electronic sounds and understated pulsating synthesizer. After The Heat conjured 
up a new world coming to terms with the encroachment of new technology. 
Speaking in New York in the late 1970s, Eno felt that culture was moving into a 
‘post-Science’ state, a sort of ‘technological primitivism’. Again his gaze was very- 
much on the future. 

On settling in New York in 1978, Eno began producing the art-pop group 
Talking Heads and generally enjoyed the energy of New Wave rock music, 
which also attracted his old friend Robert Fripp. That year also saw the release of 
his first work with the American Minimalist Harold Budd, a musician strongly 
influenced by Minimalist Art. The work, The Pavilion Of Dreams, was very much 
like a sound-painting. In this period Eno professed an interest in returning to 
painting and saw his Ambient music as sonic mural. Yet he also required 
something visual. 

One day in 1978 he bought a cheap video camera and accidentally left it on 
the window-ledge of his Manhattan apartment. Over time he discovered that 
the lopsided images of the New York skyline were pleasing. Nothing much 
happened but what did — an aircraft coming by or smoke exiting from a funnel — 
had a slow Ambient quality. He also had to place a TV set on its side to view the 
results, thus altering his perception of television. These static images, along with 
the sound of Music For Airports, were piped into environments like La Guardia 
Airport and Grand Central Station in 1980, hectic spaces which Eno felt could 
be calmed by an Ambient experience. Eno termed the video work Mistaken 



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Memories Of Medieval Manhattan and felt that, like his own Ambient music, the 
images arose ‘from a mixture of nostalgia and hope, and from the desire to make 
a quiet place for myself They evoke in me a sense of “what could have been”, 
and hence generate a nostalgia for a different future.’ 

Eno lectured and spoke at length about his compositional processes. The 
keyboardist Hans-Joachim Roedelius was awed by his ability to concentrate 
when he worked with him in Cologne on the Cluster albums. ‘He worked 
twenty-four hours a day, always thinking and doing and organizing and 
structuring and talking. Always in the middle of the matter.’ Eno had devised 
many strategies for success in the studio, ranging from precise instructions to 
improvisations. He never saw any time as wasted and generated hundreds of 
hours of music on tape. He often favoured a technique of ‘composting’ where 
taped material unused from one session would be fed into the next. He also 
loved building sound circuits between an instrument and an amplifier, 
consisting of loads and loads of effects units. He not only used the synthesizer 
as a sound source, but fed sounds into it to alter their timbre. He favoured the 
new polyphonic (or multi-voiced) range of synthesizers but did not see 
them as a substitute for real creativity. He still made tape loops which would 
provide repeating sets of oscillating sounds. Using twenty-four-track mixing 
desks, he spent hours adding or subtracting echo, reverberation and equal- 
ization. At one stage he talked about ‘composition by subtraction’, a notion 
which would be seized upon by Ambient House musicians such as The Orb in 
the 1990s. 

A great boost to Eno’s Ambient experiments was provided by Daniel Lanois, 
a Canadian musician and engineer who contacted him in 1980. Lanois, together 
with his brother Bob, had converted a large Victorian house in Grant Avenue, 
Ontario, into an unusual studio full of nooks and crannies and unusual places to 
record. Their idea was a large acoustic space where all sounds could be captured. 
Eno visited and was duly impressed. It was the beginning of a dynamic 
partnership, where the musical and engineering skills of the quietly spoken 
Daniel Lanois would be the perfect foil for Eno’s ambitious ideas. Their first 
work together was The Plateaux Of Mirror by Harold Budd, an album cited as 
‘Ambient 2’ and with a map-reference cover similar to Music For Airports. Budd, 
who played his characteristic slow piano and keyboards, remembers: ‘Eno was 
willing to accept surprise and take advantage of it. He and Lanois used choms 
and delay effects to alter what I was playing and feed it back to me.’ Thus Budd 
was playing to atmospheres which he had inadvertently created. The haloed 
sound of the music and the occasional use of pitched voices made The Plateaux 
Of Mirror another Ambient tour de force. 

By 1980 Eno’s record label had become Editions EG. It was a time of intense 
activity. Between lectures and audiovisual installations all over the US, Eno 
collaborated on lots of records. His 1980 album with Talking Heads, Remain In 
Light, had pushed their sound from spiky to Ambient. During that time he and 
Talking Heads singer David Byrne had dipped in and out of studios, working on 



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a successful experiment in found voices from various sources. With its roots in 
the musique concrete of Pierre Schaeffer and early Dadaism, My Life In The Bush Of 
Ghosts was a unique blend of ideas. In 1980 Eno also found time to work in San 
Francisco for six months, collaborating on two more Ambient records: Ambient 
3: Day of Radiance (with New York zither-player Laraaji) and Possible Musics 
(with trumpeter and La Monte Young protege Jon Hassell). 

The following year Hassell arrived at Grant Avenue to work on a follow-up, 
Dream Theory In Malaya. Lanois remembers Eno’s application of large tape loops 
to create rhythms and the first use of sampling to continuously play back a 
sound. All these records garnered huge critical praise yet Eno continued to 
delve. His next solo album, the product of three years’ work, was a huge success. 
Ambient 4: On Land (1982) was an acoustic representation of childhood 
memories. Made in London, New York and Canada, the album also featured 
Bill Laswell (a future talent in 90s Ambient music.) Each track painted an aural 
location, many, including ‘Dunwich Beach’, were representations of real places. 
Eno cited Fellini’s film Amarcord (I Remember) and Teo Macero’s production of 
Miles Davis as touchstones for the record. It was awesomely powerful material, 
made from found sounds, electro-acoustic instruments, non-instruments and 
the active involvement of musicians like Jon Hassell and Laswell. Eno said at the 
time: ‘From Another Green World onwards I became interested in exaggerating 
and inventing rather than replicating spaces. This record represents one 
culmination of that and in it the landscape has ceased to be a backdrop for 
something else to happen in front of: instead, everything that happens is part of 
the landscape. There is no longer a sharp distinction between foreground and 
background.’ 

Simple jamming sessions in Grant Avenue between Lanois, Eno and his 
younger (and classically trained) brother Roger Eno produced Apollo: Atmo- 
spheres And Soundtracks (1983), an album bathed in beautiful ambiences which 
conjured up the atmosphere of the American Apollo space missions to the moon. 
Eno was intent on creating acoustic experiences which somehow replicated and 
resonated with reality. A collaboration with Harold Budd, The Pearl (1984), was 
adrift with a submarine quality, the feeling of creaking galleons at the bottom of 
a clear ocean teeming with life. The recorded sounds were slowed down by Eno 
and sent through various delay and harmonizer units. That year also saw Lanois 
and Eno go to a castle in Ireland and infuse Irish rock group U2 with a large dose 
of Ambient space. The resultant success of the Unforgettable Fire album was a 
testament to Eno’s dogged belief that ‘sound’ was a musical value in its own 
right. He would later say: ‘Certainly one of the things I tend to offer other 
musicians is a sense of sound texture. I think that the thing the recording studio 
has offered to music or electronics in general have offered to music is the 
possibility of tremendous expansion in the texture of instruments.’ The U2 
record was also testament to the inspiration of the Eno-Lanois production 
partnership, a marriage that continued to produce exceptional results in 1985 on 
the exotic guitar recording Hybrid (featuring Michael Brook) and the piano 



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album Voices (played by Roger Eno). Roger himself remembers Voices as ‘the 
last of the mega Grant Avenue production sounds, using all those great big 
washes and stuff’. 

For his own part, Eno’s Ambient music continued to develop. For years his 
work had been subject to the limitations of vinyl LPs (whose pops and squeaks 
could min the enjoyment of listening to, say, Music For Airports). With the 
advent of CD, Eno saw a medium that would be perfect for his music. In 1985 
appeared one of the first works specifically ‘designed’ for CD, Thursday After- 
noon. Here the music was a series of keyboard clusters which became slowly 
enveloped by atmospheric tints. According to Eno, a lot of the sounds 
‘deliberately faded off to the limits of earshot’. What was great about this 
recording was that the disc could be put on endless repeat play, the music 
therefore fill ing the desired location and acting like a piece of acoustic interior 
design. You didn’t just listen to this; you absorbed it at will. In the year when 
Eno met John Cage and publicly acknowledged his debt to him (‘you’re the 
reason why I became a composer!’), Thursday Afternoon was a crowning homage 
to Cage’s Ambient doctrine. 

Thursday Afternoon had derived from Eno’s evolving fascination with video. 
Commissioned by Sony in Japan, Eno had presented almost static video images 
of Christine Alicino, filmed in San Francisco. The idea was to convey a slowly 
changing video representation of the female nude. Again this was vertical 
format. For Eno it got away from the ‘hysteria’ of pop video and allowed the 
consumer freedom to breathe. Another aspect of his internationally in-demand 
video work was the use of television monitors to create video sculptures and 
video paintings. The monitor was either surrounded by a shape to create a 
crystal or was used to diffuse colour on to a flat, opalescent surface. The results 
were fascinating and were always accompanied by Ambient music in the style of 
Thursday Afternoon. During conferences in Europe at the beginning of 1986, 
Eno described succinctly where his Ambient work had led him. ‘All my work 
aspires to the condition of painting and what I like about painters is that they 
stay there, they persist. So I want to make music that has that condition of being 
almost but not completely static. I want to make it so that it constantly changes 
but it never really goes anywhere.’ Describing the music that went with his new 
video art, Eno basically summed up his technique of making Ambient music in 
general: ‘The music is made by allowing several cycles [tape loops] to constantly 
run out of synch. These loops continually fall into new synchronization patterns 
so that the music never repeats itself. I was really trying to make music I could 
never predict.’ 

Eno’s work was still strongly allied to Steve Reich’s ideas of the 1960s. Reich 
in 1968 had said of working with equipment: ‘Once the process is set up and 
loaded, it mns by itself.’ Eno said in 1986 that his loop system was ‘always 
generating a new music’. Where Eno differed from Reich was in his holistic 
application, the idea of Ambient as bigger than music. The various Works 
Constructed In Sound And Light , which were seen all over Europe in 1986, 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


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spurred his ambition to create a ‘quiet club’. The hushed darkness of slowly 
changing light sculptures accompanied by unpredictable Ambient clusters had 
all the flavour of an Orthodox or Catholic church and was thoroughly in 
keeping with Eno’s dislike of traditional clubs designed, he felt, ‘to speed up 
what is assumed to be otherwise an average existence’. 

Eno’s next move was to journey to Dublin and accompany Daniel Lanois in 
the making of the most successful rock album of the 1980s, U2’s The Joshua Tree. 
As Jimmy Page had done in 1970, Eno’s wide-screen understanding of texture 
underpinned an album that had instant appeal in America, where Eno won a 
Grammy award for his production duties. Importantly, its early 1987 release 
again put Eno’s grasp of Minimalism firmly in the public eye. His aerial 
synthesizer sounds, generated by a Yamaha DX7, defined songs such as ‘With 
Or Without You’ and during the making of the record he had pushed for the 
inclusion of material that would become future U2 hits. 

That year also saw Music For Airports used at the Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil. 
Eno’s own position had now changed. The U2 album quickly sold fifteen 
million copies for Island and made Eno’s sound a decade-defining one. Other 
rock artists, like Peter Gabriel and David Sylvian, quickly followed in his path, 
making what could only be termed Ambient rock. Having been with EG for 
years, Eno left the company, along with director and future wife Anthea 
Norman-Taylor. Together they started Opal Ltd. The idea was to further Eno’s 
work and those artists allied to him. Thus he became a ‘curator’ for people like 
Harold Budd, Michael Brook, Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois, his brother Roger and 
painter Russell Mills. Together they forged a new identity for music and 
released many records. Eno himself was now happily living back in Suffolk in his 
own house which included his Wilderness studio. The 1988 compilation Music 
For Films 3 showcased all sides of Eno’s nexus, including a new Moscow 
recording of the archetypal electronic instrument, the Theremin, by its 
inventor’s granddaughter Lydia. 

This threw up a new avenue of exploration for Eno — Russia. In its Glasnost 
phase the country was opening up to all kinds of ideas and having Eno actually 
work there was a fascinating thought for thousands of musicians starved for years 
of outside technical expertise. In 1988 Eno chaired a satellite-TV cultural debate 
called Opal-Link Leningrad. Then he went to Moscow to produce a record by 
Zvuki Mu, an anarcho-humorist rock group. Of greater import, though, was his 
collaboration with the classically trained violist John Cale (who had worked 
with La Monte Young, John Cage and The Velvet Underground), who wished 
to record an orchestral setting of Dylan Thomas poems in the summer of 1989. 
The subsequent album, Words For The Dying (Land), was also recorded in 
Moscow but under duress as Eno battled with ‘the distraction of a film-crew, a 
strangely-equipped foreign studio and a large orchestra’. That year also saw Opal 
release a blissful album of Armenian folk music, I Will Not Be Sad In This World, 
by duduk (flute) player Djivan Gasparayan. 

For many years Eno had been fascinated by Ambient spaces. He had found 



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locations such as Rome’s Botanical Gardens and the Exploratorium in San 
Francisco interesting enough places to mount installations in previous years. His 
1989 invitation to the Tenkawa Shinto shrine near Kyoto in Japan was an 
opportunity not to be missed. With the help of Michael Brook, he mounted an 
Ambient performance inside a crater of a volcano, with music deployed around 
the site to give it a physical presence. Following in the footsteps of Stock- 
hausen’s Park Music (1968-71), Eno felt ‘it tested the line between performance 
and installation’. He expanded these ideas at the Winter Garden (aided by Jon 
Hassell) and in 1990 at the Rainforest Installation at London’s Barbican, where 
the sounds of Colombia and the Cameroons were mixed into Eno’s own 
Ambience in a large tropical setting. 

For Eno the 1990s brought consolidation, appreciation, public esteem and a 
much wider field of activity than ever before. Though he made a pop album in 
Suffolk with John Cale, he admitted in the autumn of 1990 that Discreet Music 
and Music For Airports were his best-selling solo albums of all time. (In a BBC 
Radio interview Eno declared that Discreet Music was ‘one of the enduring 
pieces of Minimal music’.) Having once told me that he felt New Age music was 
mostly ‘blurring noises mixed with pretty sounds’, by now he saw it as validation 
that people were listening to music differently. House music also made him 
excited. ‘I love anything that suddenly cuts the grain, sounding great and full of 
potential. It belittles the other stuff, which suddenly sounds like Hollywood by 
comparison.’ Eno again joined Daniel Lanois to produce U2, this time in 
Berlin’s Hansa By The Wall studios, the scene of Eno’s triumphs with David 
Bowie in 1977. The resultant album, Achtung Baby , got away from the ‘glossy 
LA production style’, its discordant post-industrial sound again putting U2 
ahead of their rivals. 

Eno made three more recordings, two of them released in 1992 by Warner 
Brothers. Eno preferred not to release My Squelchy Life , his first foray into House 
and Techno styles. Instead appeared Nerve Net , a pop album which drew on 
‘jazz, funk, rap, rock, Ambient and World Music’. Then there was TIte Shutov 
Assembly , Eno’s first proper Ambient album for seven years. Drawn from 
installation musics, The Shutov Assembly aurally conjured up locations, as did 
On Land back in 1982. It was a masterly return to form, Eno’s various 
programmes for the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer imbuing electronic music with 
a ghostly, spiritual presence. The album, in a typically Enoesque fashion, came 
along by chance. A Russian painter named Shutov gave Eno a painting. He 
played Eno’s music as he painted. Eno thought he’d put together a tape of 
unreleased pieces. ‘I kept a copy of the tape, and when I started playing it I 
started to enjoy it and see a thread running through the pieces that I hadn’t really 
seen before. They’d never been put together before, you see.’ 

Yet music only took up part of his attention. During 1992 he worked hard 
with friends Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson to create a Real World theme 
park in Barcelona. Other things that drew him were the making of perfumes 
and working on Hypertext computer links. For his way of ‘celebrating a feeling’ 



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with U2 he received another Grammy Award and made another album with 
them in 1993. Through working with U2 he arrived at another famous axiom: 
‘The process of failure prepares you for the moment of success.’ More releases 
followed: the intensely Minimalist Ambient work Neroli (‘a continuous per- 
mutation of various elements as they fall together in different clusters’), boxed 
sets of his favourite vocal and instrumental music and the intriguing Philip Glass 
album Low Symphony, where themes from Low were expanded by Glass and 
played by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. 

What was always intriguing about Eno was that though he criticized what he 
saw as the ‘classical edifice’ he always interfaced with it, at times writing music for 
string ensemble. Between 1993 and 1995 his ‘serious’ profile rose. In 1993 he 
received an Honorary Doctorate from Plymouth University in the field of 
Technology. The following year he was awarded the prestigious Frankfurt Music 
Prize for Discreet Music and given a lifetime achievement award by the University 
of California. He became an important patron for War Child, a charity set up to 
bring long-term aid, education and humanity to war- traumatized children in 
Bosnia. Through his industry contacts Eno encouraged art and fashion events in 

1995 (which included the involvement of Minimalists Steve Reich and Michael 
Nyman) to raise large amounts of cash for War Child. A rock album, Help, 
produced in one day by Eno, made over £1 million for Bosnian aid. Eno talked 
and wrote extensively about the diffusion of culture, the decentralization of 
music, the ‘unfinished’ nature of art and the paucity of both CD-Rom technol- 
ogy and computers. In 1995 he was also appointed Visiting Professor in 
Communication Design at the Royal College of Art in London. All this activity 
was soundtracked by a series of collaborations: with David Bowie, Outside (RCA); 
withjah Wobble, Spinner (All Saints); and with U2 an Ambient and experimental 
set, Passengers (Island). The latter featured opera singer Pavarotti, who invited Eno 
and U2 to Modena in Italy to perform with him; they accepted and raised 
hundreds of thousands more dollars for War Child. In fact 1995 was so busy for 
Eno that he published a 400-page diary of his activities the following year. 

Eno’s endeavours to find a useful way of computers broke new ground in 

1996 with Generative Music. For years he wanted to provide the public with 
Ambient music which couldn’t be determined. He saw all his releases, 
particularly Music For Airports, as snapshots of this process. In effect he wanted 
to provide the process itself ‘I’m interested in a system that you feed material 
into and it, the system, reconfigures the material for you. Working with a 
company called SSEYO, they have produced something called KOAN. It is 
basically a machine for doing this.’ Basically KOAN interacted with a sound- 
card in a computer and allowed for the creation of variable sets of musics. 
Generative Music was a software package which provided sound experiences both 
in Ambient music and in styles ranging from the Renaissance to Schoenberg. 
For Eno it was ‘always different but. like recorded music, free of time-and-space 
limitations.’ Importantly, he saw it as a crucial development of twentieth- 
century music; a tertiary level; a fine line traced from the performance-based 



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unique concerts of nineteenth-century Romantic music to the modem re- 
cordings of the twentieth century and beyond. 

Eno again cited Steve Reich as his inspiration. And it is here, among his 
Minimalist peers, that he fits most easily. His interest has always been in pushing 
the boundaries, ‘looking at new cultural spaces’, as he puts it. He’s certainly 
responsible for bringing Ambient and Minimalist music to a broad and multi- 
faceted audience. And he’s a key figure in the appreciation of technology and 
the recording studio, still his primary tool. Talking about his work in 1997, he 
stated: ‘Music as immersion is really the basis of Ambient music. It moves away 
from the idea of music as a sort of sonic film unfolding before your ears, and 
instead suggests a place, a landscape, a soundworld which you inhabit. It 
emphasizes the textural and dynamic aspects of music over narrative and the 
directional. It suggests a different role for the listener, and a different set of 
expectations about how music can be used. It ends up somewhere between 
Muzak and La Monte Young, somewhere between music and sculpture.’ 

LISTENING 

Another Green World (EG 1975) 

Discreet Music (Obscure 1975) 

Evening Star (with Robert Fripp) (EG 1975) 

Low (with David Bowie) (RCA 1977) 

Before And After Science (EG 1997) 

< Heroes > (with David Bowie) (RCA 1977) 

Cluster And Eno (Sky 1977) 

Music For Films (Editions EG 1978) 

Ambient 1: Music For Airports (Editions EG 1978) 

Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (with Harold Budd) (Editions EG 1980) 
Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics (with Jon Hassell) (Editions EG 1980) 
Ambient 4: On Land (Editions EG 1982) 

Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks (with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno) 
(Editions EG 1983) 

The Pearl (with Harold Budd) (Editions EG 1984) 

Thursday Afternoon (EG 1985) 

The Shutov Assembly (Opal/Warner Bros 1992) 

Brian Eno Instrumental Box (Virgin EG 1993) 

The Essential Fripp And Eno (Venture 1994) 

Spinner (with Jah Wobble) (All Saints 1995) 

Music For White Cube (Opal 1997) 

Like Erik Satie, Eno put himself across as a non-musician, but don’t be fooled: 
his bass, keyboard and synthesizer playing on these records is top-notch. Another 
Green World sets the tone for the future — fourteen Satiesque miniatures rapt 
with the multi-layering potential of the studio, a perfectly poised mix of 



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electronics and acoustic instruments. The title track, as used by BBC’s Arena arts 
programme, became one of the longest-running TV themes. Discreet Music is 
one ofEno’s loveliest recordings, effected from the shaky tuning of an old EMS 
Synthi, a tape-driven Gibson echo unit and the delayed echo of two Revox tape 
machines. It first came out on Eno’s innovative Obscure label, Side Two 
featuring three variations on the seventeenth- century composer Pachelbel’s 
Canon in D Major, whereby fragments of the original piece are fed to an 
ensemble who play them in such a way as to create a delay and feedback system. 
Evening Star is a development from the tape-loop experiments of Discreet Music 
and contains a fragment of the latter. Fripp (guitarist with rock band King 
Crimson) is the perfect virtuoso foil for Eno’s sculptural studio processes. With a 
shimmering Peter Schmidt landscape painting on the cover, Evening Star is still 
one of Eno’s finest recorded statements. 

The Bowie albums Low and ‘ Heroes ’ originally appeared on RCA and have to be 
credited to Eno for their instmmental sides. What major rock or pop star would 
have taken that much risk in 1 977 without Eno on board! T oday instrumentals like 
‘Warszawa’ and ‘Subterraneans’ still sound years ahead of their time. (So impressed 
was Philip Glass by the pair that he recorded symphonic versions of Low and 
‘ Heroes ’ in the 1990s.) Cluster And Eno gives a good indication ofEno’s German 
orientation, the hypnotic effect of ‘He Renomo’ benefiting from the input of 
Stockhausen pupil Holger Czukay . Music For Films was the commercial release of 
earlier work for film directors. Its eighteen brief Ambiences succeed in conjuring 
up an alien world. Music For Airports coincides with Eno’s move to a new life in the 
United States. The piano is played by left-field English musician Robert Wyatt 
while the angelic voices are those of Christa Fast, Christine Gomez and Inge 
Zeininger. This is one ofEno’s most simple and evocative creations, its silence- 
filled setting a precursor to CD listening of the 1980s. 

Though fond of his monophonic synths like the VCS3, the Synthi A and 
MiniMoog, Eno fully embraced the polyphonic Yamaha CS-80 (first used in 1977) 
when he arrived at Daniel Lanois’ Grant Avenue studio in 1980. You can hear him 
use it on The Plateaux Of Mirror and his MiniMoog and Prophet 5 work imbues the 
exotic atmospheres of Possible Musics. Jon Hassell, along with Michael Brook, Bill 
Laswell and others, helped on the impressive On Land, which evokes many 
memories and places from Eno’s east Suffolk childhood. Apollo is the soundtrack to 
an A1 Reinert film covering the Apollo space programme between 1968 and 1972. 
Shot through with Eno’s beloved country idioms, the swimming ‘Deep Blue Day’ 
was even used by director Danny Boyle in his genius look at the nature of heroin 
addiction, Trainspotting (1996). The Pearl is a beautiful creation on which Eno works 
flat out with Daniel Lanois to place Budd’s piano and keyboards in an oceanic 
paradise. Thursday Afternoon was one of the very first custom-made releases for CD 
and can be played continuously. It was the soundtrack to a vertical-format video 
painting which, along with Mistaken Memories Of Medieval Manhattan (Eno’s New 
York video work of 1980—1), came out on domestic video in 1987. 

The Shutov Assembly is an assemblage of installation musics from all over the 



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world from the period 1984 to 1992. It comes replete with Eno’s video-painting 
ideas. The Brian Eno Instrumental Box, as well as containing good released Ambient 
music, comes with unreleased material from the limited editions Music For Films 
(Director’s Edition 1976) and Music For Films 2 (Director’s Edition 1983). It also 
includes a segment of Eno’s extremely Minimalist recording of 1993, Neroli (All 
Saints). The Essential Fripp And Eno CD of the same year wonderfully remastered 
their first 1973 collaboration, No Pussyfooting, an album credited with bringing 
Minimalist tape-delay ideas into the mainstream of rock. It also contains excerpts 
from Evening Star and four unreleased tracks from aborted 1978 Fripp and Eno 
sessions in New York. Eno made music for a film by Derek Jarman, Glitterbug, and 
he invited bassist Jah Wobble to collaborate on the resultant album Spinner. 
Iranian vocalist Sussan Deyhim and famed Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit also 
contributed. An untitled bonus track of tinkly jazz-piano shrouded in atmosphere 
was to appear again as ‘Iced World’ on The Drop (All Saints 1997), an album 
generated by applying automatic music principles to computer software and 
largely devoid of Eno’s spiritual presence. Far better Ambient work is to be found 
on Music For White Cube, where Eno took a series of London locations, recorded 
his voice, and then utilized studio effects to colour, focus and stretch the sounds. 
Eno’s interest in pure Ambience and chance was continued in installation pieces 
such as Lightness (Opal 1997), I Dormienti (Opal 1999) and Kite Stories (Opal 1999), 
where about a dozen layers of sound were allowed to overlap at random. The 
resultant ‘quiet’ musics were some of the best Ambient experiences ever recorded. 
In 2000 Eno contributed superb electronica and production to U2’s bestselling 
album All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Island). 


PHILIP GLASS 

Much has been written about Philip Glass: about his success, the sheer volume 
of his written and recorded output, his audacious rebirthing of opera through 
the avant-garde, his enormous fees and the sheer loudness of his ensemble. As 
the world’s most successful new music composer Glass has had his share of critics 
among the classical establishment but I’ve always maintained he approaches his 
art like a rock and roll musician, as interested in spectacle and great records as 
any young band. 

For me there are two really significant events in Glass’s musical career. The 
first was his teenage years spent working in his father’s record store in Baltimore 
and seeing box loads of Elvis Presley records fly out the door. The excitement 
generated by popular culture, the sight of Elvis and The Beatles on The Ed 
Sullivan Show was to stay with Glass all of his life. The second was his meeting, 
when he was twenty- nine, with Ravi Shankar in Paris. Invited to help out on 
the soundtrack to a psychedelic film, Chappaqua, Glass had a collision with 
Indian music which would change him for ever. Transcribing Shankar’s music 



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for Western musicians to play, he had to sit and write directly from Ravi’s vocal 
dictation. When he had finished, the tabla player Alla Rakha shook his head and 
announced, ‘All the notes are equal.’ Glass tried to rewrite but it didn’t work 
until he dropped the bar lines. Then he had a vision: ‘Instead of distinct 
groupings of notes, a steady stream of rhythmic pulses stood revealed.’ Glass’s 
music and Western music in general would simply never be the same again. 

Glass was bom to hard-working, first-generation Americanized Jews whose 
roots were in the USSR. Baltimore, Maryland, was the place and 31 January 
1937 the date of his birth. His father repaired radios and sold records in an 
electrical shop. His mother was a librarian. Glass’s first music was classical - 
Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn — which he heard from his father’s collection. But 
importantly his mother knew Jerry Leiber, a popular songwriter who would go 
on to become one of the most influential of the 1950s and 60s, with Elvis 
Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’ just one of a dozen hits. This duophonic musical input 
would make a lasting impression on Glass. ‘When I grew up in the 50s the 
popular music was Italian crooners — Dean Martin, Perry Como and Frank 
Sinatra. There were a couple of Irish singers, a couple of Jewish singers. It wasn’t 
really big business. Then in 1948 Les Paul bounced layers of sound using 
monaural tape recorders. Then in the 50s he and Mary Ford created lush 
textures with early multi-track equipment. Sam Phillips gave Elvis and Jerry Lee 
Lewis their deep echoes. Then Phil Spector made multi-layered tracks for the 
Crystals and Ronettes. What I’m basically saying is that I saw the birth of rock 
’n’ roll. Popular music became mass media with Elvis Presley. There is no doubt 
it was then because we were ordering records by the box and selling them by the 
box because they never got time to get on the shelves. Memories like Ed 
Sullivan introducing Elvis and then The Beatles stayed in the mind. There was 
actually a kind of hysteria and what I was seeing was the birth of a new culture - 
a culture that was very broad and that was something we hadn’t seen before.’ 

Today Glass makes no bones about his precocious intelligence: ‘I was 
considered a local whizz-kid.’ He was playing violin at six, flute at eight 
and attending the Peabody Conservatory. Then it was on to the piano and 
quickly passing into the University of Chicago to do a tough course in Maths 
and Philosophy at only fifteen. For Glass these subjects were a passing interest. 
At night he acquainted himself with the music of Charles Ives and Anton 
Webern. During the summer break of 1954 he went to Paris to follow in the 
footsteps of his hero Jean Cocteau and lived the wild life of a student bohemian. 
At the age of nineteen he graduated and went to New York’s prestigious 
Juilliard School of Music, where he met Steve Reich. 

By now Glass was pretty proficient at writing and scoring music. The Juilliard 
was the second hothouse academic environment he’d experienced as a youth. ‘It 
was a very interesting school, considered the premier American music school of 
the time. It was really a conservatory, a trade school where you learned a trade. 
You did nothing at the Juilliard but music. Like Chicago, they put very talented 
people together to see what would happen. It was very hard to get in, very easy 



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to get out. The teaching programme wasn’t very heavy. You had a major 
teacher who was a musical guru in your speciality (in my case conducting and 
composition) and then concerts were organized, orchestrations, string quartets — 
that kind of thing. It was a heady atmosphere with lots of talented people 
working very hard. There was a dance department and Martha Graham was 
there. I began to write dance music. I also began to write theatre music.’ 

Glass had written dozens of pieces in the American neoclassical style of Aaron 
Copland. He had heard John Coltrane, Yoko Ono and La Monte Young. He 
had ventured to Colorado to study with Darius Milhaud because of his past 
connection with Jean Cocteau. He got a Diploma from the Juilliard and by 1962 
was in Pittsburgh on another award, as an in-house composer for the local 
public school. After two years of this he got a Fulbright scholarship to go to Paris 
and study with Nadia Boulanger, who had taught Copland. In 1965 Glass found 
himself in a situation where Boulanger ridiculed and bullied him, negating his 
past work and getting him to start all over with punishing lessons in counter- 
point and harmony. Beethoven and Mozart were the order of the day. The 
Serial music which Glass had been constantly rejecting was far from his mind 
here. When asked to write for a Samuel Beckett theatre piece called Play he 
came up with two static lines of music for saxophones. 

‘I felt modem music as represented by Boulez was a cul-de-sac. I was very 
unhappy studying modem music because it seemed to have nowhere to go. I 
felt it was a one-way-ticket — to nowhere. Boulez really didn’t write for the 
general listening public.’ Then along came Ravi Shankar. As he had waitered 
and worked at airports before he went to the Juilliard, Glass now found himself 
in need of money. He answered the call of Conrad Rooks, who was looking for 
an inexpensive young composer to score and transcribe Indian music for a pop 
film. In a Paris studio Glass met Shankar and the aforementioned insight into 
reductive music occurred. ‘It was a watershed, a new beginning. Nadia had 
taught me how to go beyond myself. Ravi represented a composer who was also 
a performer. And that’s where I got the idea of performing my own music. It 
was a way to find an audience. From the moment I met Ravi I set my sights on 
making my way in the world as a composer and as a performer and not through 
the academic system.’ 

Indian music had shown Glass that a composition could be made out of 
cells strung together to make larger forms which are unified by a cyclical 
process. It’s this feeling of cyclical motion which would mark out his later 
music from that of his contemporaries. Having travelled to Morocco with his 
future wife, Joanne Akalaitis, Glass set off again another voyage of discovery. 
‘I decided to look around this new culture which Ravi had acquainted me 
with. I went again to Morocco and from there it was India through Turkey, 
Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ Glass and Akalaitis spent months at the base of 
the Himalayas immersing themselves in Tibetan Buddhism. For him it was a 
new lease of life. ‘I had spent a long time at school, starting at eight and now 
it was twenty years later! I knew it would be a difficult re-entry into the music 



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world because I was going to come in from a very different point of view 
altogether.’ 

Astonishingly, Glass had written eighty pieces before 1966. These he turned 
away from, vowing instead to start afresh. Back in New York in 1967 he met 
Steve Reich at a gallery concert of Reich’s music. The two spoke and Glass 
went off to write Strung Out , One Plus One and Two Pages, the latter in honour 
of Reich. This music was loud, simple, fast and used lines of notes in parallel 
motion a la Debussy. Moreover the music expanded and then contracted after 
the manner of Indian raga. By 1968 Reich and Glass had teamed up, fronting 
the same band. A significant gig was one at the Film Makers’ Cinematheque in 
New York’s SoHo, which featured Strung Out and Music In The Form Of A 
Square, where the musicians, including Glass, had to play walking around the 
space because the music was pinned to the wall. The most important aspect of 
Glass’s music then was his fascination with electronics and volume. ‘At that time 
synthesizers were not a practical performance vehicle. Robert Moog’s first synth 
was showing up. Don Buchla’s computer was around. I took lessons from a 
young woman named Suzanne Ciani, who is now famous. But back then was 
before the era of polyphonic keyboards. We needed ten-fmger access and the 
only thing which offered that were simple electric organs by Farfisa and 
Yamaha.’ 

Glass was now settled in Chelsea with Joanne Akalaitis and their two 
children. He worked as a plumber and moved furniture with Steve Reich. 
Music flowed out of him — Music In Fifths, Music In Contrary Motion and Music In 
Similar Motion, all written in 1969, worked with loud wind instruments and 
keyboards. Through them Glass fleshed out drone and open-form composition. 

An extension of the cycle, Music With Changing Parts (1970), was Glass’s first 
big hit. Its jazzy keyboards and mixture of voice drones, trumpets and violins 
were meshed. The distinctive sound came from the insistent pounding of a bass 
organ. It was funky, it rocked. Yet it was full of long tones — sounds seemed to 
come from a distance, appear and disappear. It was entrancing, intoxicating stuff. 
Glass set up his own record company, Chatham Square, to record this work as a 
double album in 1971. In March of that year he visited London with his 
ensemble to perform Music With Changing Parts at the Royal College of Art. 
Footage of Glass during this phase shows him hypnotized by his own music, his 
fingers lost in the groove of the keyboard. Brian Eno and David Bowie were in 
the audience. They were knocked off their feet by the music, Eno particularly 
impressed with the sound, which was to him akin to heavy metal without the 
guitars. 

Glass had parted company with Reich a year earlier. He had performed on 
the latter’s Four Organs but that was it. The two egos couldn’t be contained in 
one band. Glass cites musical differences — his group being constant, Reich’s 
always changing to the desires of his music. On the age-old rivalry Glass said to 
me in 1991: ‘I had very good relations with Steve. When we worked together 
he was a terrific character. Now he’s gone a little cranky, but that shouldn’t be 



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taken too seriously.’ Glass now had his own ensemble, put together from old 
university friends and a series of chance encounters. An important new ally was 
Kurt Munkacsi, a sound designer who had worked with John Lennon and 
acquired a mobile studio for Glass to record his first album on. He mixed live, 
achieving a sheen of sound by blending acoustic and electronic instruments. He 
also worked with La Monte Young. The minute he teamed up with Glass he 
custom-built a sound system for him which was in constant evolution. Glass 
tirelessly played galleries and campuses, occasionally nudging his way into rock 
venues. Various concerts in Europe and America produced fights and walk-outs. 
Glass in the early 1970s was really annoying the musical establishment. 

Then he had another stab at the record market. His Music In Twelve Parts was 
written between 1971 and 1974 and was nearly six hours long. Parts 1—6 were 
recorded with Munkacsi and conductor, arranger and keyboardist Michael 
Riesman between 1974 and 1975. A summation of past techniques and a look 
forward to the future, Music In Twelve Parts evinced archetypes of Glass’s style — 
short motifs, repetition, rising and falling arpeggios, hushed, note-like vocaliza- 
tions termed solfege vocals. In Munkacsi Glass had found a perfect foil and 
Riesman’s arrangements were superb. Between the three of them the sound of 
amplified winds, keyboards and voices was like a signature tune, for ever 
associated with Glass. Parts One and Two were released in 1974 — one side slow 
and hypnotic, the other side ripplingly fast. But Glass had no major record deal 
and drifted easily into the world of music theatre. 

In New York’s Downtown scene he had met Robert Wilson, a visionary 
utilizer of time, space and light. By suggestion and strong imagery Wilson filled 
stages with a meaning that was more appropriate to image- and noise-filled late- 
twentieth-century life. A friend of his, Christopher Knowles, was autistic but had 
an incredible gift for word juxtaposition. The three set about creating the first of 
Glass’s portrait operas, Einstein On The Beach. The long haul to create this piece, 
which lasts four hours and forty minutes, is detailed in Glass’s book Opera On The 
Beach and reveals a composer both tenacious and full of self-belief. The opera 
worked around simple images of a bed, a train, a spaceship. Glass had the Einstein 
character play the violin as had Einstein in real life. Lucinda Childs choreo- 
graphed and sang. The work was premiered in Europe, where its hallucinatory 
power drew a whole new young audience. In November 1976, when it came to 
the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, it sold out its two performances. 
There was no intermission, the piece functioning as Ambient backdrop. Scores of 
hippies attended and Glass became a celebrity, the flag-flyer for a new kind of 
daring modem opera. Though a critical success, Einstein On The Beach lost over 
$100,000 and Glass had to drive a taxi to make money. 

The dazzling music of Einstein On The Beach could be compared to the 
smash-hit rock album Dark Side Of The Moon , released in 1973 by Pink Floyd. 
The flowing, fluid dynamics were similar and the ‘Trial/Prison’ sequence, 
where Lucinda Childs repeats in robotic manner the experience of a ‘prema- 
turely air-conditioned supermarket’ to a series of vocalized numbers before the 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


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whole ensemble bursts in at ear-splitting volume, has strong similarities with 
Pink Floyd’s album. Violin and flute passages lent a mystical quality to the whole 
work. 

Glass set about recording Einstein for the small Tomato label, which put it out 
in 1977 on a four-LP set. But the company went bust and it wasn’t until 1979, 
when Glass began his long association with CBS, that the whole work was 
generally available. That year also saw the completion of his second opera, 
Satyagraha (Sanskrit for ‘life-force’), based on Gandhi’s experiences in South 
Africa. For this work, commissioned in Holland, Glass used elements of Purcell’s 
baroque music, and also drew on the lives of Martin Luther King and Tolstoy. 
Almost classical, Satyagraha has some beautiful segments - the lilting strings and 
Minimalist beauty of its final eight minutes are simply breathtaking. 

Glass ended the 1970s with some dance pieces for Lucinda Childs and the 
painter Sol LeWitt. In 1980 he remarried, this time to a doctor, but it wouldn’t 
last. It would be the start of the most intense decade of his life as commission 
after commission arrived. His big break came in the form of Glassworks , a pop 
record of short pieces released in 1982 and destined to sell hundreds of 
thousands of copies. Marketed by CBS like any rock album, this concoction 
of smooth horns, strings and lovingly coaxed electronics made Glass a star. One 
of the first digital recordings, it revealed a composer committed to pushing every 
aspect of his work into the future. It is still Glass’s most popular recording. To 
celebrate, Glass began a new relationship with Candy Jemigan, an album-sleeve 
designer, one that would nearly last ten years. By 1984 he had bought a 
nineteenth-century townhouse in Manhattan and had finished his third portrait 
opera, Akhnaten, a tribute to the visionary Egyptian pharaoh who brought 
monotheism to his country in the fourteenth century BC. Glass had even 
journeyed to Egypt to research the salient details. 

Glass was usually up at six every morning, writing with paper and pencil. Kurt 
Munkacsi was in a studio in Broadway refining digital recording techniques 
begun on Glassworks. A list of Glass’s other 1980s commissions is mind- 
boggling. Koyaanisqatsi (1981 — film soundtrack), The Photographer (1982 — 
play), CIVIL warS (1983 - Robert Wilson collaboration), Glasspieces (1983 - 
ballet), Company (1983 - String Quartet No. 2 for Samuel Beckett play ), Juniper 
Tree (1984 - opera based on Grimms’ fairy tales), Mishima (1984 - film 
soundtrack), The Olympian (1984 - theme for Los Angeles Olympics), Descent 
Into The Maelstrom (1985 - theatre piece based on Edgar Allan Poe), In The Upper 
Room (1986 — dance piece), Songs From Liquid Days (1986 — album based on 
lyrics of Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne and Laurie Anderson), The 
Making Of The Representative Of Planet 8 (1986 - opera based on a Doris Lessing 
story), The Light (1987 - symphonic movement), Violin Concerto (1987), Pink 
Noise (1987 — art installation with Richard Serra), Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 
(1987 — cadenzas), Powaqqatsi (1987 — film soundtrack). The Fall Of The House Of 
Usher (1988 — chamber opera based on Edgar Allan Poe story), 1000 Airplanes 
On The Roof (1988 — electro nicized drama), Itaipu/The Canyon (1988 — 



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orchestral pieces), Thin Blue Line (1988 - film soundtrack), Dances Nos. 1-5 
(1988 — recording), The Voyage (Metropolitan Opera commission), Hydrogen 
Jukebox (1989 - drama collaboration with Allen Ginsberg), Solo Piano (1989 - 
recording). There were also meetings in London with Mark Moore of 
S ’Express for House remix projects. 

Of the above works, the soundtrack for the 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi (Hopi 
Indian for life out of balance’) would make Glass’s star shine even brighter. 
Written for experimental film-maker Godfrey Reggio, this mix of sombre 
vocalize and bubbling electronics perfectly suited Reggio’s blend of panoramic 
nature photography and speeded-up images of modem urban life. The fact that 
the film was edited to Glass’s music was remarkable in itself. The string quartet 
Company revealed Glass’s versatility and would be featured on the 1987 debut 
album by the Kronos Quartet alongside music by Jimi Hendrix. Like Reggio, 
Paul Schrader edited his 1984 biographical film about the Japanese writer Yukio 
Mishima to Glass’s music. Liquid Days (1986) was an awkward meeting of Glass 
with rock lyricists which may have sounded good on paper but not on disc. The 
following year’s Violin Concerto was mellifluous beauty. In 1988 Glass again 
teamed up with Reggio for Powaqqatsi (meaning ‘life in transformation’). 
Though the film was a rather weak portrayal of the effects of capitalism on 
the third world, Glass’s soundtrack was a wonder. In the work he samples 
instmments such as the doussn’gouni, kora, balafon and tambura, which he 
knew from having travelled in West Africa, Pem and Brazil. 

That year Glass confounded all his critics by receiving $325,000 from the 
‘Met’ to write a new opera (a rarity for a new-music composer) for the 1992 
season. It was to commemorate Columbus’s discovery of America and would be 
a talking point for years to come. Meanwhile, after the 1988 US presidential 
election, Glass was fed up with politics and so decided to collaborate with Allen 
Ginsberg on Hydrogen Jukebox. The beat poet (who died in 1997) furnished 
poems which covered four decades of American social history, some of it 
personal and melancholic. Glass’s final outing of the 1980s, Solo Piano , was a 
return to simplicity — just Glass at the piano. Over sixty concerts were performed 
to rapturous applause. 

Glass entered the 1990s as the established star of Minimalism. No one else had 
made this much impact, had so much to show for his endeavour. As he once 
admitted, he worked 355 days out of every 365, working harder than any Wall 
Street banker. Up at six every morning to write pages and pages of music, he 
spent the afternoons in the studio with Kurt Munkacsi and Michael Riesman. 
On top of this there were rehearsals, ensemble concerts and tours. Glass once 
admitted to me: ‘If we worked bankers’ hours we’d get nothing done!’ 

Having reached a different plateau, he returned to his roots in 1990 by 
reconnecting with Ravi Shankar for the album Passages. Here each presented 
the other with music to flesh out, in a true collaboration of minds and music. 
Tragedy struck the following year when, shortly after his marriage to Candy 
Jernigan, she died of cancer. Glass pushed forward all the same. 



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Before The Voyage was finished he quickly collaborated on The White Raven 
with Robert Wilson. For the latter, based on the exploits of the explorer Vasco 
da Gama, Glass and Wilson drew on The Wizard Of Oz to create a fantastical 
spectacle in Portuguese! By 1992 The Voyage was ready and its $2-million 
Metropolitan production was another runaway success. Its visual tableaux of 
spaceship, sailing ship, earth and the stars rooted the story of Columbus in 
the world of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 - A Space Odyssey. Following this, Glass 
turned his attention to writing material based on his greatest hero, Jean Cocteau. 
Orphee , based on the Frenchman’s 1949 film, would be a chamber opera. Its 
1992 production was much hailed for the perfectionism of its writing. That year 
also saw Glass transform tracks from David Bowie and Brian Eno’s watershed 
1977 album Low into a series of masterly symphonic sketches in his ‘Low’ 
Symphony. Returning to Cocteau in 1993, he did the curious thing of writing 
music for his 1946 film La Belle et la bete ( Beauty And The Beast), which was 
performed in front of the film. He also took time out to play a giant organ in 
Tennessee and release the results. Film footage exists of this jaunt. Glass seemed 
to be presenting himself as a Renaissance man capable of fulfilling any fancy, 
whether it be writing a symphony, as in Symphony No. 2 (1994), or recasting 
avant-garde rock for orchestra, as in ( Heroes > Symphony (1996). 

In my encounters with Glass he has always expressed an openness to musical 
experience. Hence his meetings with Ravi Shankar and his rebirthing of two 
Eno and Bowie albums that had much to do with him in the first place. Glass 
had no inhibitions in the late 1980s about working with House musicians in 
England. Today his work is sampled over and over and he is a guru to creators of 
loud, repetitive strains of music. No doubt about it, Philip Glass made 
Minimalism a household word, his Glassworks cutting right across the social 
and economic spectrum to become an instant classic. Many have accused him of 
diluting serious music, so recognizable is his style, but his intense work methods 
and incredible output must unnerve the begrudgers. 

But it his contribution to electronic music that is most undervalued. It was 
Glass who popularized the early Farfisa portable organs and brought the 
polyphonic synthesizers of the 1970s into concert halls. Though most of his 
material is written on his favourite Baldwin piano, Glass favoured the first 
generation of digital synths and then the second generation using Midi 
computer systems, keyboard controllers and samplers. He explained to me: 
‘We don’t hang a mic in front of an orchestra. It’s all carefully constructed 
overdubs. Almost every instrumental section is extended electronically. When 
you hear an instrument it’s that instrument plus a synthesized instrument. When 
I do an opera I hand a completely synthesized version to the theatre’s designer 
and director, the chorus and orchestras. Hence rehearsals are speeded up because 
everybody knows the music. In truth my organization gives me a tremendous 
leverage in the music business. Six to eight people work for me in the studio. 
The work is only limited by the amount of music I can write and I can write a 
lot of music. If you have no way of getting the music out of your house it backs 



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up and your productivity slows down. I’m lucky in that my music output is 
geared to how much I can produce, which is nice.’ 

LISTENING 

Einstein On The Beach (CBS Masterworks 1979) 

Glassworks (CBS 1982) 

Koyaanisqatsi (Antilles 1983) 

Satyagraha (CBS Masterworks 1985) 

Powaqqatsi (Elektra/Nonesuch 1988) 

Passages (with Ravi Shankar) (Private Music 1990) 

Tow ’ Symphony (Point Music 1993) 

Music In Twelve Parts (Nonesuch 1996) 

‘Heroes’ Symphony (Point Music 1997) 

Dracula (Nonesuch 1999) 

Einstein On The Beach , credited to Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and the Philip 
Glass Ensemble, is a great place to start. Dazzlingly bright, it features a 
composer and musicians in the first flush of success. Though Elektra/Non- 
esuch released a new fuller version (by thirty minutes) in 1993, the original 
four-CD set is the one to get. All CBS product is now credited to Sony. 
Glassworks is still a beautiful record - the silken sound of cellos, horns, clarinets 
and violas mixed with piano has an intoxicating balm all of its own. According 
to Glass: ‘That was our first digital recording. We worked very hard at Big 
Apple recording studios. It was done on twenty-four-tracks but the damn 
machines were constantly breaking down. It was very expensive and so we had 
the night hours.’ Kurt Munkacsi even ensured that the mix was perfect for the 
then emerging Walkman market. If you only ever buy one Glass album then 
this is it. 

Koyaanisqatsi is a short CD which packs a punch. It’s strangely archaic, with its 
French horns, trumpets and organ sounds, but when the electronics kick in we 
hear Glass in all his glory. The other soundtrack for Godfrey Reggio, Powaqqatsi , 
is full of ethnic percussion, which gives it a unique ethnic rock and roll sound. 
Satyagraha, recorded in 1985, used the then new thirty-two-track 3M digital 
process whereby Michael Riesman continuously overdubbed parts rather than 
using the traditional method of editing together several actual performances. 
Passages is a true merging of West and East as Glass meets Ravi Shankar on equal 
ground. The idea was given the go-ahead by ex-Tangerine Dreamer Peter 
Baumann and the work recorded in Madras and New York. 

Glass’s ‘Low’ Symphony confirms his interest in the very avant-garde he helped 
shape; his repeated listening to Bowie and Eno’s album, particularly its 
Minimalist second side, gave rise to this brooding forty-two-minute symphony. 
Music In Twelve Parts confirms Glass’s brave decision to switch from Sony to 
Nonesuch in 1993. Initially released as a two-parter on Caroline in 1974 and 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


141 


then issued in its full glory on Virgin Venture in 1988, Music In Twelve Parts 
shows how tenacious Glass is as it took three decades to get it right. As he 
admits: ‘By this stage we’d been playing it for years, so it sounds much better.’ 
Nonesuch has a comprehensive reissue programme for Glass, including new 
recordings of Einstein On The Beach and Koyaanisqatsi. The ‘ Heroes’ Symphony 
puts a neo-Romantic sheen on the almost alienated sound of the Bowie and 
Eno original recorded in Berlin in 1977. 

The Dracula soundtrack is the first score ever composed for Tod Browning’s 
1931 horror film starring Bela Lugosi. Its eerie antique feel, provided by the 
Kronos Quartet, is highlighted by Glass’s mesmerizing shifting sprites of sound. 


ECM 

It all happened in January 1975. A young, seemingly black pianist sat at a grand 
piano in Cologne’s Opera House and improvised. What came out was a fusion 
of country, blues, gospel and ragtime bound together by a thorough knowledge 
of Debussy’s Impressionism. The performer’s grasp of melody, his ability to 
couch complexity in simplicity and his sheer virtuosity were astonishing. His 
name was Keith Jarrett. His photo adorned the resultant double album, which 
came in a high-quality white sleeve. Inside, the vinyl was thick, pressed direct 
from the metal masters. Its sound was beautiful, the tone of the Bosendorfer and 
its resonance perfectly captured. Even the audience applause was incorporated 
into the overall Ambience. The label was green with three white letters: ‘ECM’. 
That album, The Koln Concert , has gone on to sell nearly two million copies. It is 
responsible for widening public taste, particularly among the young, for new 
music. With its cool, neutral-looking sleeves and beautiful sounding records, 
ECM changed the face of jazz in the 1970s and that of contemporary music in 
the 80s. The sound of ECM became so distinctive that it became known by its 
slogan ‘the most beautiful sound next to silence’. The records’ covers, with their 
framed landscape-format photographs, were mimicked by dozens of 1980s New 
Age music labels. Fortunately the music was unique, ECM’s take on Minim- 
alism being authentic. 

ECM, or Editions of Contemporary Music, was founded in Munich in 1970 
by Manfred Eicher. If ever a label was the vision of one man it is this. Eicher has 
supervised every single recording. The distilled sound, so peaceful yet so full of 
wonder, is a product of his endeavours in Oslo, together with his trusted 
engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. Eicher attended the Berlin Academy, studied bass 
and composition, then left to work with the city’s Philharmonic as well as doing 
jazz stints. He even spent time with the creme de la creme of classical labels, 
Deutsche Grammophon. When he arrived at a small mail-order Munich label 
called JAPO in 1970, Eicher seized his chance. Initially the idea was to record 
exiled American musicians in Europe but Eicher saw more interest in picking up 



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on the piano ideas of Paul Bley, Chick Corea and the aforementioned Keith 
Jarre tt. 

Exploration was the key and soon Eicher began to record unusual ensembles, 
mixtures of acoustic and electric musics, electronically textured. Though he 
considered live music important, he preferred to gain a ‘live’ performance in the 
studio. Listen to the hue and depth of Chick Corea’s 1972 duet with 
vibraphonist Gary Burton on Crystal Silence for confirmation of this fact. While 
Jarrett made the label famous with such documents as Solo Concerts (1973), 
recorded in Bremen and Lausanne, ECM became associated with outstanding 
young players like the Norwegian soprano saxophonist Jan Garbarek, the 
German bassist Eberhard Weber, the American guitarist Ralph Towner and 
the outstandingly slick American guitar virtuoso Pat Metheny. 

Not all of ECM’s music is quiet. Works by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, 
Steve Tibbetts, David Torn and Bill Frisell could be described as fiercely intense. 
But overall the label has gone for ‘new music’ whose sound and spatial presence 
is as important as the instrumentation itself. A look at Jarrett, born in 
Pennsylvania in 1945, is as good an example as any of ECM’s arc. He began 
piano at three and was an incredibly accomplished writer by his teens. After 
being kicked out of Berkeley’s Music School in 1964, Jarrett moved via Boston 
to New York, where he began playing with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and 
Charlie Haden. In 1970 he ended up on electric keyboards in Miles Davis’s 
group and toured. The following year he gave up electric music for the acoustic 
piano and his first solo ECM disc Facing You. Within three years he was 
recording for string orchestra and saxophone on Luminessence and then for 
improvisatory quartet on Belonging (both 1974 and both featuring Jan Garbarek). 
After the summit of The Koln Concert he turned to the orchestral suite on the 
dramatic Arbour Zena (1975), back to piano on the twenty- album set The Sun 
Bear Concerts (1977) and then back to ensemble with the lilting My Song (1978). 
In 1980 Jarrett began by recording the sacred music of Armenian mystic 
Gurdjieff and a fully orchestral composition, The Celestial Hawk. There was 
more piano and organ music in the 80s before a series of eclectic works: Book Of 
Ways (a clavichord album, 1986), Spirits (an ethnic-sounding double set, 1986) 
and two straightforward classical performances of Bach’s The Well-Tempered 
Klavier (1988) and Goldberg Variations (1989). This period was crowned by 
Jarrett’s receipt of the title of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters from 
France’s Ministry of Culture. 

Jarrett continued to make fairly mainstream jazz recordings for ECM, and his 
series of interpretations of classic jazz tunes, beginning with Standards , with Gary 
Peacock on drums and Jack Dejohnette on bass, was sustained into the 1 990s. Y et it 
was always the Minimalist and solo work which drew most critical attention. In 
1991 Jarrett recorded a resonant piano set at the Vienna State Opera which was as 
good as any of his piano music of the 1970s. Speaking of its mysterious quietness, 
the pianist referred to a ‘music which finally speaks the language of the flame itself. 
ECM also accepted Jarrett’s recordings of Shostakovich’s Preludes And Fugues 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


143 


(1993), Bach’s Sonatas For Viola And Harpsichord (1995) and Mozart piano concertos 
coupled with a symphony (1996). In 1997Jarrett returned with another piano solo 
album, La Scala , performed in Milan’s opera house and including an almost-still 
evocation of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. Although by 1999 he was 
suffering from the fatigue syndrome ME, Jarrett was still able to record a wonderful 
set of love melodies at home in New Jersey. The Melody Of The Night With You is 
lyrical piano Ambience at its most exquisite. 

Both Jarrett and the Missouri-born guitarist Pat Metheny provided ECM 
with economic freedom. Metheny ’s succulent mix of extended Wes Mon- 
tgomery-style soft guitar passages, ethnic percussion and voicings, plus the pastel 
shades of Lyle Mays’s piano, was an ECM trademark. Coming to ECM via 
vibraphonist Gary Burton, Metheny signed a solo deal in 1976. His records are 
beautifully constructed, full of emotional substance and eloquence. There were 
many recordings before he left the label in 1984, and a handful — As Falls 
Wichita , So Falls Wichita Falls (1981), Offramp (1982), Travels (1983) and Works 
(1984) — are exemplars of acoustic and electric restraint with potency a 
Minimalism- as-Maximalism aesthetic. As Keith Jarrett once pointed out, 
ECM music could never be confused with New Age soporifics. 

In 1984 Eicher founded ECM New Series for composed music. During the 
1970s he had sought out and recorded Steve Reich classics like Drumming and 
Music for 1 8 Musicians. He now embraced such Minimalists as Meredith Monk 
and the Estonian Arvo Part, plus sixteenth-century music by Thomas Tallis and 
the early-music repertoire of the vocal Hilliard Ensemble. In 1994 the Hilliard 
Ensemble and the stellar Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek provided an 
unexpected crossover success with Officium. Eicher said of ECM in 1989: ‘For 
me a very important premise is stillness — sensitivity to time, musical time; of 
letting time have a new relationship to sound. I’m fascinated by the aura of space 
— by what soundwaves transmit to make a tone sing. I want to capture that tone 
exactly as I hear it.’ 

LISTENING 

ECM is chock-full of fascinating listens. The guitar works of Norway’s Teqe 
Rypdal and Brazil’s Egberto Gismonti are some of the cream. The gifted 
Norwegian tenor and soprano saxophonist Jan Garbarek, whose clear, floating 
sound is reminiscent of the desolate Scandinavian fiords, has been a mainstay of 
the label since the early 1970s. He is to be found in group and solo recordings 
and in tandem with some of Jarrett’s most inspired exploratory work. Here are 
ten ECM albums worth buying: 

Crystal Silence (1972). Timbral sound-painting from Gary Burton on vibes and 

Chick Corea on piano. 

Solstice (1974). Guitarist Ralph Towner with Garbarek on saxes and Eberhard 

Weber on bass turn autumnal shade into sound. 



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The Koln Concert (1975). Keith Jarrett on piano, footfalls, cries and audience too. 
Awesomely melancholic. 

Folksongs (1981). Bassist Charlie Haden, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and guitarist 
Egberto Gismonti blend the jazz and folk traditions of America, northern 
Europe and Latin America to spellbinding effect. 

Works (1984). American guitarist Pat Metheny’s first summation on ECM. As 
well as beautiful guitar, includes bells, pipes, organ, voices and Lyle Mays’s 
pianos. 

Spirits 1 And 2 (1986). Eastern chant, tape collage, piano Impressionism and 
more as Jarrett ensconces himself in the studio alone with ethnic percussion 
and flute instruments. 

Making Music (1987). Indian musicians Zakir Hussain and Haraprasad Chaurasia 
team up with guitarist John McLaughlin and saxophonist Jan Garbarek in this 
high-quality Ambient exploration. 

Private City (1988). Englishman John Surman’s baritone saxophone tone is 
supported by recorders and synthesizers in an artful digital recording. 

Vienna Concert (1993). Jarrett returns to solo piano with some magical 
instrumental meditations. 

Officium (1994). This huge crossover success features the Hilliard Ensemble 
singing medieval Latin texts and Jan Garbarek’s horn, recorded for 
reverberation in a Sussex church. 


WINDHAM HILL AND NEW AGE MUSIC 

During the mid-1980s a phenomenon known as New Age music percolated 
through the airwaves. In America it became known as ‘hot-tub’ music - a form 
of Minimalism so bland that it was only good for playing as background Muzak 
in the bath. It was no coincidence that New Age music coincided with the 
intense increase in the money supply which characterized the ‘greedy 80s’. The 
music was aimed primarily at overheated executives who needed to unwind 
after a Wall Street-style day at the office. For the most part the music was 
instrumental, relaxing and soothing the listener with innocuous washes of 
synthesizer and acoustic guitar. Led Zeppelin it wasn’t. Most of it was 
emotionally shallow, pitching through cover design and title at a quasi- 
mysticism that was ephemeral at best. The better product picked up a con- 
stituency among New Age hippies (who had neglected the workaday lifestyle 
without ignoring the profit motive) and, after the market swelled, some 
Minimalism of genuine quality was on offer. 

The best place to start is Windham Hill, the creme de la creme of American New 
Age labels of the 1980s. The oft-repeated story is that William Ackerman was a 
carpenter who played guitar for his friends in Palo Alto, California. He was so 
impressive that sixty of them gave him five dollars each to record an album, In 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


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Search Of The Turtle’s Navel, which was distributed by hand in 1975. This 
instrumental album struck a chord and led to the formation of Windham Hill 
Records. In terms of album design and quality of pressings, the label was a 
virtual American edition of ECM in Germany. Even Ackerman’s role as fatherly 
supervisor to recordings mirrored Manfred Eicher’s. By 1986 Windham Hill 
was a $20-million corporation. By 1990 $30 million per annum was going 
through the books and the company had state-of-the-art recording and video 
studios in Vermont. 

The open homage to ECM may have been a result of Ackerman’s having 
been born a German. Having settled in California at the age of nine, he was 
adopted by a Stanford professor and began playing acoustic guitar at the age of 
twelve, inspired by the folk and blues purist John Fahey. He attended Stanford 
University, played rock guitar, dropped out, became a carpenter in Vermont 
and returned to acoustic guitar and open-string modal tunings. Here the sounds 
he was interested in were not far away from the work of Miles Davis and John 
Coltrane. His early repertoire came from pieces for Stanford theatre produc- 
tions. 

Ackerman’s instmmental prowess produced some of the most convincing 
New Age music of its time. Of his first six records on Windham Hill, Passage 
(1981), Past Light Visiting (1983) and Conferring With The Moon (1986) were all 
highly regarded instrumental jewels. His open tunings and use of repetition had 
a strong Minimalist quality helped by a studio technique which favoured close 
miking and a clear, ringing production sound. Ackerman differed from serious 
Minimalism in his preference for melodic decoration over simple additive or 
reductive process. 

Not all of Windham Hill was as good as this. In the label’s desire to record 
atmospheric mood music, a lot of so-called ‘soft jazz’ was recorded. Combos 
like Shadowfax and Montreux recorded easily forgettable sounds and Windham 
Hill’s favoured instmmentalists, pianists George Winston, Bill Quist, Philip 
Aaberg and Scott Cossu, and guitarist Alex De Grassi (Ackerman’s cousin and 
also a carpenter) dealt in pastel shades rather than satisfying music. Quist did the 
label no favours in 1979 when he recorded Piano Solos Of Erik Satie, an insipid 
interpretation of some of the finest piano miniatures ever written. 

By 1980 Windham Hill very well-pressed vinyl recordings had brought 
an increase in turnover of 649 per cent. Over the next two years business 
boomed with George Winston’s pallid piano records Autumn, Winter Into Spring 
and December, which by 1983 had clocked up one and a half million sales on the 
Billboard charts. His soporific records belied this Michigan man’s background in 
wandering blues, stride and rock piano. It was as if all his strong emotions had 
been left out of the Windham Hill records. And this was exactly what the public 
wanted at the time — something pleasant but not exacting. 

With the coming of CD in the early 1980s, Windham Hill seemed tailor- 
made for the digital age. And it was at this time that the label signed two of its 
most important musicians, Michael Hedges and Mark Isham. Hedges was a 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


dazzling acoustic guitar exponent from Oklahoma. When he recorded Aerial 
Boundaries for Windham Hill in 1984 he was likened to Jimi Hendrix. The 
album’s deployment of simultaneous slapping string rhythm and fingerpicking 
melody, double-handed lead playing, multiple tunings, percussive guitar-body 
technique and new harmonic ideas earned Hedges a deserved Grammy. In tmth 
Hedges on guitar made every other string-bender on Windham Hill seem like a 
cocktail musician. 

Born in 1953 in Sacramento, Michael Hedges was brought up in mral 
Oklahoma. By his teens he could play cello, clarinet and flute but listened to 
rock music, particularly The Beatles. After high school he privately studied 
piano and eventually went (like Philip Glass) to the Peabody Conservatory in 
Baltimore. There he studied Morton Feldman, John Cage, Stockhausen and 
modern composition. ‘I made a transcription of Varese’s Poeme electronique , 
which impressed me enormously, and listened to ECM records. At night I 
would play in bars, mainly instrumental versions of Neil Young songs.’ When 
he left he wound up playing an open-air movie house in Palo Alto, California, 
in 1980. There he was spotted by Will Ackerman and immediately signed to 
Windham Hill. 

Mark Isham was similarly gifted and studied. The son of a violinist and a 
professor of art and music, this New Yorker was able to cast aside piano and 
violin in 1964 when he was thirteen for tmmpet music. Inspired by Mahler and 
Miles Davis, he studied hard but after university worked for symphony 
orchestras in San Francisco. He moonlighted with pop and rock bands such 
as The Beach Boys before heading into jazz and orchestration with the Irish 
musician Van Morrison in the late 1970s and early 80s. By the time Windham 
Hill released Vapor Drawings in 1983, Isham’s style of soft synthesizers orna- 
mented by trumpet, soprano sax, flugelhorn and piano had become distinctive. 
An intelligent user of both old analogue synthesizers (Prophet, Arp, Moog) and 
digital means (for example, the Steiner EVI wind controller) Isham released a 
second Windham Hill album, Film Music , in 1985. This was to define his 
subsequent career as his themes for the likes of the Diane Keaton-Mel Gibson 
vehicle Mrs Soffel went on to make him one of the most in-demand film 
composers in the Hollywood of the 1990s. 

New Age music spread like wildfire throughout the 1980s. At its height 
one Tower Record shop employee defined it as ‘music for the muesli set with 
a positive ionizer in the comer who look at their Habitat furniture as they pay 
off the mortgage on their hi-fi’. As a response to Windham Hill, CODA 
records was set up in the UK in 1983 with the aim (to quote its founder, Nick 
Austin) ‘to make music for the New Age’. Unfortunately, the instrumental 
doodlings of rock musicians like Rick Wakeman, Tom Newman and Michael 
Chapman did not convince and neither did their contrived album covers with 
the words ‘New Age’ emblazoned across the top. Eventually CODA diver- 
sified into instrumental music television in 1989 with its Landscape Satellite 
channel. 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


147 


As CD took over from vinyl the demand for instrumental music increased. 
Every major label created an offshoot to cater for demand. Polygram had Theta, 
Virgin had Venture, RCA had Private Music. Some labels were lucky enough 
to have genuine New Age stars on their books. CBS had the Swiss harpist 
Andreas Vollenweider, who by 1987 had sold four million albums in the US 
alone. Bigger still was vapid Japanese synth noodler Kitaro, bom in 1953. After 
years of meditation on Mount Fuji, Kitaro created fourteen celestial albums 
before being signed to Geffen in 1986 after the worldwide success of his 
documentary music Silk Road. At the time Kitaro could attract audiences of 
sixteen million in the Far East for one televised concert. There were healthfood- 
and-meditation labels like Kenwest, Vital Body and New World Cassettes 
which favoured the sounds of whales and plants to actual music. There was 
British psychic healer Matthew Manning whose Cloud Nine Music series was 
designed to improve spiritual well-being. There were earnest electronic labels 
like Innovative Communications in Germany and Erdenklang in Austria which 
wished to open minds to future developments in synthesizer and other 
electronic technology. 

And there were plenty of nondescript labels like Ocean Disques, MMC, No 
Speak and Pangaea, the latter two being offshoots of pop group The Police. No 
Speak was started by the band’s manager Miles Copeland in 1987, and Pangaea 
was the brainchild of the lead singer and solo pop star Sting in 1988. After a 
while New Age became a marketing tag, a way of refuelling bumed-out careers 
or just plain making money. The better labels, like Virgin Venture, used this 
market niche to bring genuine Minimalist talent into the mainstream. Their 
focus was on neglected electronic pioneers like the Germans Hans-Joachim 
Roedelius, Klaus Schulze, Holger Czukay and new pieces by composers such as 
Michael Nyman and Ennio Morricone. Virgin Venture even allowed pop star 
David Sylvian a chance to record high-quality Minimalist electronica with 
former Stockhausen pupil Holger Czukay. 

Another label which gained respect in the late 1980s was Private Music, 
founded by Peter Baumann, formerly of Tangerine Dream; it signed the 
German electronic group in 1985. The Los Angeles label also recorded the 
sitarist Ravi Shankar, who went on to make an album with Philip Glass for it in 
1991. Private Music’s roster included artists like guitarist Leo Kottke and 
violinist Jerry Goodman, but it struck gold with Suzanne Ciani. Having studied 
with synthesizer guru Don Buchla in the 1960s, Ciani went on to teach Philip 
Glass synthesizer technique in the 70s. During the 90s she was considered the 
brightest exponent of New Age keyboard music in the US, achieving substantial 
sales and Grammy award nominations. 

By the end of the century New Age was firmly defined as mystical, meditative 
accompaniment and a niche market. Genuine composer-musicians who had 
come to prominence through it grew independent and had their own careers. 
Those who just used it to cash in sank without a trace. Yet New Age has to be 
credited with allowing Minimalist music a chance to breathe at a time when the 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


music markets were fiercely competitive and new CD technology was finding 
its feet. 

LISTENING 

While the bulk of New Age music is instantly forgettable, there are a 
few fascinating records. All of Will Ackerman’s and Michael Hedges’s guitar 
albums on Windham Hill are worthy of attention. Ackerman’s Past Light Visiting 
(1983) and Conferring At The Moon (1986) both use subtle electronic and ethnic 
sounds alongside the guitar. As for Michael Hedges, after making the con- 
summate Breakfast In The Field (1981) and Aerial Boundaries (1984), he did a New 
Age vocal album, Watching My Life Go By, before recording a concert set, Live 
On The Double Planet (1987), which displayed his rock influences with its 
homages to Jimi Hendrix, Prince and The Rolling Stones. Tragically, Hedges 
was killed in a car accident in 1997. 

The compilation Windham Hill — The First Ten Years (Windham Hill 1990) gives 
a good indication of what the label was about. Below are listed ten other New 
Age albums which defined the genre: 

Kitaro — Silk Road 1 And 2 (Kuckuck 1980). Celestial soundtrack for Japanese 
TV series which made Kitaro a New Age synth star. 

Laraaji — Ambient 3: Day of Radiance (EG 1980). Cosmic music from New York 
zither-player, with Brian Eno producing. 

Mark Isham — Film Music (Windham Hill 1986). Soft piano, trumpet and elegant 
synth textures defined Isham as the American soundtrack composer of the 
1980s and 90s. 

Seigen Ono - Seigen (Pan East 1986). Dextrous melding of piano and guitar 
with Ambient backdrops from leading Tokyo studio musician-engineer. 
Claire Hamill — Voices (Coda 1986). Ground-breaking use of the English singer’s 
voice to generate smooth ensemble instrumental sound. 

Andreas Vollenweider - Down To The Moon (CBS 1986). The Swiss electronic 
harpist sold millions with this mixture of country, ethnic and classical styles. 
Suzanne Ciani - Velocity Of Love (Private Music 1986). Keyboardist and 
synthesist Ciani scored huge FM radio success in the US with her brand of 
sensual New Age. 

Gurdjieff/Thomas de Hartmann —fourney To Inaccessible Places (EG 1987). A fine 
recording by pianist Elan Sicroff of Armenian mystic’s musical inspiration. 
What most New Age should have been but wasn’t. 

Mind Over Matter - Colours Of Life (Innovative Communications 1988). A 
melange of taped ethnic sounds and studio electronics make up a record 
which was like dozens of others in New Age canon. The bordered landscape 
cover shot and innocuous, placid contents (titles include ‘Dreams’, ‘Peace’, 
‘Spirit Catcher’ and ‘Spirit of Destiny’) by Dutchman Klaus Hoock are 
indistinguishable from other New Age fare. 



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WOO - Into The Heart Of Love (Cloud Nine 1990) — Pan-ethnic London 
New Age music with guitars, clarinets and keyboards made by two brothers 
who were part of the New Age traveller community. From here House and 
Techno music would absorb mass New Age sensibility. 


HAROLD BUDD 

One of the great piano stylists of the late twentieth century, Harold Budd wrote 
slowly unfurling and haunting compositions that were some of the highlights of 
Ambient music in the 1980s and 90s. His technique of atmospheric chords 
ornamented by delicate Minimalist motifs was enunciated further by his 
collaboration with Brian Eno. Drawing a line from Coltrane through John 
Cage, the Minimalist painting of Mark Rothko, the vast deserts of America, 
Brian Eno and modem electronics, Budd has fashioned some of the most 
beautiful, not to say cmcial, recordings in Ambient music. 

Bom in Victorville, California, a dusty town in the Mojave Desert, in 1936, 
Budd had a musical mother from West Virginia who sang Protestant hymns and 
played the harmonium. Hank Williams was a favourite on the radio. Budd 
started drumming when he was eight and while he was at high school wanted to 
dmm for John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk, whose music he worshipped. 
Today he admits: ‘I didn’t have the skills or keep up the necessary practice to be 
really good.’ Something of a late starter, he held down various bit jobs, 
including working in an aircraft hangar in LA. Turning twenty, he lit out 
for San Francisco but returned without fortune to Los Angeles Community 
College, where he met a gifted teacher, H. Endicott Hanson, who grounded 
him in music theory. At the age of twenty-one Budd was conscripted and while 
in the army met the radical jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. Soon after that he 
attended the University of Southern California, where he met electronic 
composer Morton Subotnick. 

Budd had become enthralled with music theory, but he was more interested in 
American music than European, though he loved Erik Satie. After a heavy dose of 
Stockhausen, Webern and Boulez he started to grow weary of what he strangely 
described as ‘the tyranny of the European tradition’. Budd became captivated by 
Charles Ives andjohn Cage. After attending a lecture by Cage in 1 961 he felt that he 
wasn’t alone. ‘That really blew me away. Here was the ticket to a new music. After 
that I became interested in painters, particularly Mark Rothko and Ellesworth 
Kelly, who went strictly for surface, for brilliant blasts of colour. My early music was 
based on chance and the theatre pieces I did and were very open-ended and 
improvisatory like Cage.’ In 1970 Budd wrote his famous Candy Apple Revision, a 
piece whose entire content was its title and the chord D flat maj or. In his own words 
Budd had ‘minimalized himself out of a career’ . From then until 1 976 he lectured in 
music at the California Institute for the Arts. 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


By 1977 Budd had written an elaborate score for celesta, harp, marimba, 
vibraphone and pianos. It had taken him six years and had aroused the curiosity 
of Brian Eno, who in England had started the experimental label Obscure 
Records. The two spoke and Budd went to London to record an album of 
gorgeous impressionistic hue called The Pavilion Of Dreams. This 1978 opus 
included Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and saxophonist Marion Brown. It was 
a wondrous creation and established Budd as one of finest exponents of 
Ambient minimalism of the period. Eno was keen to document Budd’s 
composerly ability and Budd was equally keen to see how the producer worked 
in the studio. Within two years the two had reunited for the collaboration The 
Plateaux Of Mirror , where Budd witnessed first-hand how Eno used the studio as 
another instrument. ‘We did good pieces quickly, just piano and ambience. 
What I was playing was going through a configuration of processing machines 
and I was hearing that as I played, so that the treatments influenced what I 
played. This was a brand-new world of making solo music that was hardly solo.’ 

Back in America, Budd worked productively between 1981 and 1983 to 
produce two recordings — Serpent In Quicksilver and Abandoned Cities. The first 
explored various keyboards and synthesizers intertwined with pedal-steel guitar. 
The second involved two lengthy atmospheric pieces for an installation at the 
Fisher Art Gallery in Los Angeles. Intense and majestic in design, these 
electronic tone-poems displayed Budd’s acumen in the studio. Soon after he 
was back with Eno, this time with Daniel Lanois in the Lanois brothers’ studio 
in a big, rambling house in Ontario. For weeks in 1984 they recorded The Pearl , 
an album of ultramarine quiet which would make its mark with the public. 
‘This was much more cohesive and focused than Plateaux. By then we had all 
become mature in that musical language.’ 

Unlike the traditional classical pianist, Budd did not see himself as a 
performer. ‘I think of myself as a composer who occasionally plays the piano.’ 
His path into music - rural desert upbringing, love of the country and lack of 
interest in the urban rush — had given him a uniquely relaxed approach. 
Therefore he didn’t raise an eyebrow when lots of harmonizer and reverb were 
applied to the acoustic and electric pianos he used on The Pearl. 

In 1985 Budd was in the apartment of Michael Hoenig, a keyboardist who 
had played with Tangerine Dream. There he discovered the Syn clavier key- 
board and wrote a lengthy piece with Japanese drum rolls titled Gypsy Violin. At 
the same time he heard some cassettes by the Scottish group The Cocteau Twins 
and in 1986 returned to London to record two records, Lovely Thunder and The 
Moon And The Melodies. The first featured ideas he had fleshed out on Synclavier 
and Fairlight Computer Music Instrument in LA, while the second was a strange 
collaboration with the operatic vocals and treated guitars of The Cocteau 
Twins. 

In 1988 Budd concluded his UK work with a final collaborative album with 
Eno, The White Arcades. In 1990 he returned permanently to California, where 
he travelled the desert and wrote about Indian legend. He focused this in an 



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album of instrumentals and poetry, By The Dawn’s Early Light , which was 
recorded in Daniel Lanois’s French colonial mansion in New Orleans. For this 
ensemble piece of guitar, viola, harp and keyboards Budd remembers ‘covering 
the Steinway piano with horseblankets to get a muffled, muted sound’. The idea 
was to get ‘chords flowing freely in space’. 

Budd continued to live a Buddhist existence, indifferent to material gain. 
Even the destruction of his piano by a Californian tremor in 1994 did not faze 
him. Instead of writing for keyboards he wrote poetry and collaborated with 
musicians like Andy Partridge and Hector Zazou. 

Budd maintains that at one point he clocked up 200,000 miles travelling 
around the world ‘concertizing’, as he puts it. His reputation established, he 
maintained strong links with the art world. In fact he always considered himself 
‘an artist who likes working with ideas’. In a hot, dusty Arizona town called 
Mesa he produced the stunning keyboard solo album Luxa in 1996. Its 
superlative contents were a homage to his favourite twentieth- century artists. 
On its release Budd praised the Minimalist tradition, particularly the work of 
Terry Riley, Philip Glass, La Monte Young and rock group Pink Floyd. He 
stated simply: ‘I feel a kinship.’ 

LISTENING 

Many ofBudd’s recordings have become classics of the genre. The Pavilion Of 
Dreams (Obscure 1978) is Ambient ensemble design at its best. Both Serpent In 
Quicksilver and Abandandoned Cities (released as a single disc, Land 1989) convey 
Budd’s drained but poignant desert visions. The Pearl (EG 1984) catches the 
Eno-Lanois production team at a time when they were limbering up for U2. 
Nobody has conveyed the sense of an ocean world like Budd before or since. 
Music For Three Pianos (All Saints 1992) is a miniature masterpiece, while as a 
career summation and a deployment of Budd music Luxa (All Saints 1996) is 
hard to beat. 


JON HASSELL 

One of the most significant catalysts of the twentieth century, the American 
trumpeter Jon Hassell acted as a nexus for a confluence of different musics which 
integrated aspects of Miles Davis, Stockhausen, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, 
Pandit Pran Nath, Brian Eno and latter-day Hip-Hop, Trance and Trip-Hop 
styles. On the release of his significant Possible Musics: Fourth World Vol. 1, 
Hassell stated: ‘I propose a kind of classical music of the future which is as 
structurally well defined as, for example, a symphony. I want an integration of 
the best qualities in Western music and the freedom that exists in all great non- 
Westem classical music.’ 



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His integration of Third World sounds with First World equipment created 
a hybrid he dubbed ‘Fourth World Music’, an instrumental form which initiated 
the World Music explosion in Western music of the 1980s. 

Hassell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the birthplace of rock and roll, in 
1937. Therefore he is the same age as the other major minimalists Glass, Reich, 
Riley and Young. His father worked for the Internal Revenue Service but 
played a cornet. Inspired by the dance bands and trumpeting of Harry James, 
Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson, Hassell took up the instrument. He often 
frequented black bars and had many black friends despite the racial segregation 
of the times. Yet his academic inclinations directed him towards New York and 
after high school he enrolled in the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. 
During his second year, while playing hotel lounges and rooftops, he acquired a 
scholarship and studied composition and orchestration. Hassell remembers 
Eastman as a conservative school but by the time he got his Master’s degree 
he was into the wave of European Serial music which had spread after Webern 
and was being spearheaded by Stockhausen. 

Impressed by Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge ( Song Of The Youths) and 
what he described as the German’s ‘thoroughgoing out and out musical 
dedication’, Hassell enrolled for two and a half years in the Course for New 
Music in Cologne. Here he was exposed to all manner of new musics. He heard 
for the first time the work of Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez, and Stockhausen 
himself performed a Minimalist piece by La Monte Young. On a personal level 
Hassell shared classes and rooms with Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay, who 
would go on to form the most important German rock band of the 1960s and 
70s, Can. He took his first LSD trip with Schmidt and was greatly taken by the 
almost surrealistic character of Czukay. 

In 1967 Hassell returned to America. He met Terry Riley at the Center for 
Creative and Performing Arts at Buffalo University, New York State. Riley had 
formed an ensemble to perform In C and so Hassell took up the trumpet again. 
Interest from David Behrman at Columbia meant Hassell ended up on the first 
Minimalist recording of In C in 1968. Hassell told me: ‘Terry was very 
influential during his semesters there. A chance remark of his when we were 
hanging out together made me sit up and think. He described all Serial music as 
“neurotic” and since psychoanalysis and Freud were happening in Vienna at the 
same time it seemed to make sense. We talked about a music that one could float 
away to and that was actually enjoyable to listen to. And because of the times it 
made sense. The history of drugs in America is inextricably linked with early 
Minimalism.’ 

Hassell pursued a PhD in musicology at Buffalo while creating such pieces as 
Solid State (1969), a tuned sound mass which became a hit on the US art circuit. 
He involved himself with La Monte Young in New York and performed live 
and on record in the latter’s Dream House concept. Back in Buffalo in the early 
1970s, he again met Terry Riley, who presented him with a tape of the North 
Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, a specialist in the ancient kiranic style of singing. 



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Later, at the Documenta festival in Rome, Hassell, in tow with La Monte 
Young, shared a bill with Nath. Influenced by Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and On 
The Corner, Hassell was using wah-wah pedal with trumpet and putting it 
through electronic effects. Nath heard this and started improvising a vocal. 
Hassell saw it as ‘a lens back through five centuries pure music a drawing of a line 
that is pure raga’. The upshot of this was that Hassell accompanied Young, his 
wife Marian Zazeela and Pran Nath on a pilgrimage to Dehra Dun, in northern 
India. Meditating in mountain temples before dawn and coming down to 
improvise music was the stuff of mystery and imagination. Pran Nath would be 
beckoned to the US by Young and Riley, while Hassell incorporated more 
Indian raga into his style. By 1977 he wanted to begin a recording career with a 
sound that was ‘so vertically integrated that you were not able to pick out a 
single element as being from a particular country or musical genre’. 

After a couple of records Hassell hit his stride in 1980 with Possible Musics: 
Fourth World Vol. i, the album which introduced his breathy, digitally altered 
trumpet lines to the world. Backed by Brian Eno’s subtle synthesizer sounds, the 
record had a totally individual feel. Hassell played and recorded with the pop 
band Talking Heads and in 1981 made another influential recording, Dream 
Theory In Malaya, which integrated various ethnic sounds with the water-splash 
rhythms of Malayan aborigines. His influence was duly recognized by Peter 
Gabriel, who requested his presence at the first World Of Music, Art And Dance 
(W OMAD) festival at Bath, England, in 1982. His performance with the Master 
Drummers of Burundi and the Royal Court Gamelan of Indonesia made World 
Music a visible force in the UK for the first time. 

In Europe Hassell became a celebrity of the new primitivism and was feted by 
French and Italian cultural ministers. In 1983 he returned to Canada to record 
his favourite album, Aka-Darbari-Java (Magic Realism), a meld of Indian Darbari 
raga motifs over Senegalese drumming, Aka pygmy voices from the central 
African rainforest, Gamelan percussion from Java and the five-octave vocal 
range of 1950s singer Yma Sumac, orchestrated by Les Baxter. It was called 
‘unearthly’, ‘a unique blend of magic and science’. Hassell says he felt ‘like a 
painter blending all these things into a place that was both familiar and very 
strange’. 

From there Hassell became a constant on the world art and music circuit. He 
collaborated successfully with David Sylvian, the former singer of the UK group 
Japan, and recorded more records with the U2 production team of Brian Eno 
and Daniel Lanois. In 1989 he shaped the theme music to the Martin Scorsese 
film The Last Temptation Of Christ and reunited with Terry Riley for a 
performance of In C in China with the Shanghai Film Orchestra. In 1990 
so impressed was he with the Africanness of black American Hip-Hop and rap 
culture that he made a record around it, City: Works Of Fiction, which ‘ends with 
quiet African drums and his familiar trumpet chords’. In the 1990s Hassell was 
hailed as a visionary by such diverse Techno and Ambient musicians as The Orb, 
808 State, Tricky and Howie B. 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


LISTENING 

Possible Musics: Fourth World Vol. 1 (EG 1980) is a silky-smooth listen abetted by 
Eno’s sound textures. Dream Theory in Malaya (EG 1981) is more primitive but 
with fascinating sleeve notes. Aka-Darbari-Java (Magic Realism) (EG 1983) is 
essential late-twentieth-century music which conjures up the aural impressions 
of the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Power Spot (ECM 1986) is another fine 
album, as is Flash Of The Spirit (Intuition 1988). Hassell’s contributions to David 
Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees and Words With The Shaman (Virgin 1984—5) are 
excellent and his involvement in Peter Gabriel’s Passion (Real World 1989) 
noteworthy. His 1994 album Dressing For Pleasure (Warner Brothers) further 
investigates American black music culture while drawing on the fountain of 
inspiration of Miles Davis. 

Hassell even collaborated with the atmospheric American guitarist Ry 
Cooder for an album couched in the Ambience Indian flute and tambura 
titled Fascinoma (Water Lily 1999). He then entered the twenty-first century by 
making breathy trumpet contributions to the Ambient soundtrack of the Wim 
Wenders-Bono film The Million Dollar Hotel (Island). 


MICHAEL NYMAN 

Throughout the 1960s and 70s Michael Nyman was the UK’s chief advocate for 
Minimalism. In fact it was he who invented the term to describe the wave of 
new music coming from the minds of Terry Riley, Philip Glass and others. 
During the 1980s and 90s he was the country’s most successful Minimalist 
composer, clocking up album sales in the hundreds of thousands and eventually 
in the millions. His 1993 soundtrack for the Jane Campion film The Piano made 
him a cause celebre all over the world and sold in excess of two million copies. 
Nyman’s importance doesn’t derive just from his commercial success, but also 
from his writings, his embracing of the studio and his own realization that the 
music of the past can be a rich source for the music of the present. 

Born in London in 1944 of Jewish parentage, Nyman always looks at his 
musical upbringing as conventional. c My parents were not remotely musical. I 
got a whole grounding in musical history from a very dedicated music teacher in 
Northeast London. I listened to everything from Monteverdi to Stravinsky. I 
learned the symphonic repertoire and went to the opera a lot. It was an amazing 
experience and I had it from the age of ten when I started playing piano.’ 

He attended the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1961 to 1964 and 
there studied the normal musical elements: history, composition, keyboards. 
During that time he wrote four pieces of music after the lugubrious style of 
Shostakovich, which all got a public airing. In 1963—4 he actively involved 
himself in the atonal and Serial music of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


155 


Birtwistle. Seen as revolutionary young turks at the time, they impressed 
Nyman with their nerve. ‘I admired them but I couldn’t sit down and express 
what I wanted to express in this post-Webern medium.’ Instead he opted for 
musicological research. 

Nyman went to King’s College, London for further studies. There he met 
Thurston Dart, a keen early-music specialist, who encouraged his interest in the 
great seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell. In the words of 
Nyman: ‘He presided over my (still unfinished) PhD thesis on sixteenth- and 
seventeenth-century repetitive and systems music!’ These were works more 
akin to the electronic experiments of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, but Nyman 
had no problems applying them to the canons and rounds of Purcell’s day. In 
1965 he even went to Bucharest to research into Romanian folk song. On 
finishing this study in 1967 Nyman still felt unsure as a composer. He worked on 
reclaiming authentic versions of baroque music for a year and even edited for 
the German music publisher Universal Edition until 1972. 

His most important role, though, was as a music critic for various British 
publications: the Spectator , New Statesman , Music And Musicians , and the Daily 
Telegraph , where he openly espoused new music. He began in 1968 by 
supporting the more radical ideas of Boulez and Stockhausen but by the 
end of the decade had shifted his perspective to the work of John Cage, Terry 
Riley and Englishmen like Cornelius Cardew and Gavin Bryars. He coined the 
word Minimalism to describe this new, American-influenced sound, and 
became its greatest English champion. More than that, he played with the 
makers of the music - with Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra and with the Ports- 
mouth Sinfonia, where he met Brian Eno, and most importantly joined Steve 
Reich’s Musicians for the year of 1972. Also during that time he experimented 
with a VCS3 Putney synthesizer, developed in London by the scientist Peter 
Zinovieffs company Electronic Music Studios, or EMS. 

Nyman collected his writings in the ground-breaking book Experimental 
Music: Cage And Beyond , which was published in 1974 and was enthusiastically 
received in the US. From that time he made his living as a music lecturer, being 
a prominent figure in the art departments of colleges such as Maidstone and 
Goldsmiths as well as the famous Slade School of Art. Again he met Eno and 
Cornelius Cardew. In 1976 two significant things occurred to revitalize 
Nyman’s own music. First, he was asked by his old friend Harrison Birtwistle 
to organize eighteenth-century gondolier songs for a production at London’s 
National Theatre. He formed a band that would play loud versions featuring 
medieval instruments mixed with brass, keyboards and electric guitars. This 
would eventually become The Michael Nyman Band. 

Secondly, Brian Eno recorded Nyman’s debut album, Decay Music . Nyman’s 
own reminiscences are important here. ‘That was the first time in my life I’d 
ever been in a recording studio. I’d known Eno through the Portsmouth 
Sinfonia and myself and my contemporaries like Gavin Bryars, Cardew and 
Tom Phillips had collectively fed into Eno’s education as an art student. 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Suddenly he came up with this label Obscure Records. He recorded pieces by 
John Cage and John Adams and I helped him out in the second phase. It was a 
new opportunity. Eno was quite a glamorous figure with a lot of power, the 
power to put records out and the power to be able to record in a good twenty- 
four-track studio — a first for me.’ Decay Music was recorded in Island’s studios 
with Eno producing. Considered now to be a fairly mechanical example of 
Nyman’s ‘systems’ music for piano and bells, it nevertheless kick-started his 
recording career. 

The album had started its life as a rejected soundtrack for a Peter Greenaway 
film. Greenaway was a reclusive Englishman who organized surreal tableaux into 
highly objective films. He had met Nyman during the 1960s and by the early 70s 
they were collaborating on a children’s film — Nyman banging out a soundtrack 
on his synthesizer. The film was never made. But, from 1978 onwards, Green- 
away’s experimental non-narrative works, like A Walk Thru H , The Falls and 
Vertical Features Remake , all carried Nyman’s music. Then, in the early 1980s, 
Greenaway visited Nyman’s West London home to discuss music for a new film. 
The story, set in late-seventeenth-century England, concerned a man who was 
commissioned to make twelve different drawings of a country house. Nyman was 
to score each drawing to fix it in the viewer’s mind. There was no script and the 
music would be used, in Nyman’s words, ‘to lubricate the plot’. 

The result was The Draughtsman’s Contract, the work which established both 
Nyman and Greenaway at the cutting edge of English film and music in 1982. 
Nyman’s score of burping horns and humorous harpsichord snatches was 
perfectly suited to an ironic look at be-wigged high jinks in post-Restoration 
England. Henry Purcell was the inspiration for Nyman, who adapted his ground 
basses for a more modern Minimalist music with sure aplomb. Excerpts like the 
hypnotic ‘Garden Is Becoming A Robe Room’ were a fresh window into the 
past, as was the film’s arch look at aristocratic exploitation of an honest artisan. 

Production of The Draughtsman’s Contract album was done by David Cun- 
ningham, an electronic musician who Nyman had met through the pop group 
The Flying Lizards. Cunningham would handle most of Nyman’s recordings 
from this point. Over the next nine years the Nyman- Greenaway soundtracks 
would become legendary. There was the quirky A Zed And Two Noughts 
(1985), the Mozart-inspired Drowning By Numbers (1988), the choral Gothic of 
The Cook , The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989) and the vocal and 
instrumental lushness of Prospero’s Books (1991), which marked the end of 
their relationship. Greenaway has said that Nyman’s music ‘shows its skeleton 
admirably, delights in repetition, has an ironic sense of its own existence and is 
nicely self-reflexive’. Nyman found the separation of music from film in his 
partnership with Greenaway (music always preceding shooting) an unpredict- 
able and exciting way to work. 

All the soundtracks have beautiful static moments, where deftly manoeuvred 
strings, horns, reeds and brass float in unison through aural space. The 
Shakespearian origins of Prospero’s Books provided Nyman with much material, 



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and the album provides a valuable insight into Nyman’s advanced techniques. 
Yet Nyman objected to the discrepancy between the film music and the 
soundtrack released on record. His objection led to a break with Greenaway: ‘It 
was the longest process ever. Nearly a year. I’d given Peter a bunch of music 
which he liked. That was fifty per cent of it. The rest of the music was composed 
especially — a series of songs and a miniaturized opera. Peter had grown quite 
attached to the initial music. There was the actual soundtrack and the idealized 
soundtrack recorded for the album. In the end I felt the discrepancy was too 
great between what he used in the film and what I achieved on the album.’ In 
Nyman’s mind the Decca album was superior and a fruitful partnership had been 
muddied. 

Outside his work with Greenaway, the 1980s was the decade where Nyman 
established himself as a left-field composer of merit. In 1982 he wrote I’ll Stake 
My Cremona For A Jew’s Trump for electronically modified violin and viola. This 
became a film directed by Sara Jolly. Another film connection was his 
arrangement of ‘Spread A Little Happiness’ for pop star Sting in the movie 
Brimstone And Treacle. Two years later Nyman wrote the music for a video 
opera, The Kiss And Other Movements, an energetic take on ensemble pieces 
which, according to Nyman, ‘used repetition to emphasize change’. It became 
an EG album in 1985. 

Around this time Nyman collaborated on many dance pieces, notably with 
Rosemary Butcher, Lucinda Childs and Ashley Page. In 1986 came his most 
ambitious project, a full touring opera based on a book written by the 
neurologist Oliver Sacks. The book concerned a man suffering from distorted 
vision — literally The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. Nyman wove his 
insistently repetitive patterns around tunes by Schumann and was taken to task 
by the classical establishment for picking at musical history in this piece lasting 
over seventy minutes. Ignoring the criticism, he went high-tech to record the 
opera with David Cunningham in 1988 for CBS Masterworks. Then he teamed 
up with dancer Shobana Jeyasingh in a televised combination of string-quartet 
music and Indian classical rhythm. The Cannes film festival heard Nyman’s 
music in 1989 when he scored the Patrice Laconte film Monsieur Hire, based on a 
detective novel by Georges Simenon. The composer’s pen had also fulfilled 
many commissions for ensembles around the world and his own Michael 
Nyman Band (like the groups of Glass and Reich) was constantly touring. 

At that time Nyman emphasized the constant stream of commissions and 
work: ‘I have to appear in a straight festival one day, a rock festival the next, a 
dance thing the day after and a film-music convention the day after that.’ His 
attitude to the classical establishment was ambiguous — he disliked its suspicion 
of repetitive music but as a composer desired its patronage. 

The times were changing as musical styles began to blend and overlap. In 
1991 Nyman was signed to Decca Records (original home of The Rolling 
Stones) but allowed to maintain his association with Virgin. His first two records 
were show-stoppers, recorded in the most up-to-date digital fashion in 



158 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


London’s Abbey Road Studios, made famous by The Beatles. Prosperous Books 
for Peter Greenaway I’ve already mentioned. Songbook , with Ute Lemper, was a 
cycle of songs for the Berlin chanteuse dubbed the new Dietrich. Her Brechtian 
style was reminiscent of 1930s cabaret and very theatrical. Nyman chose texts 
credited to the German poet Paul Celan, Shakespeare, Mozart and Rimbaud. A 
stream of string quartets and concertos would also be released but Nyman’s 
biggest challenge was yet to come. 

The New Zealand director Jane Campion had come to prominence with An 
Angel At My Table, a powerful film about a writer institutionalized by her own 
family. Her next film, Piano Lesson, again looked at exploitation and disability. 
Nyman’s own reflections are interesting here: ‘Its main character, Ada, played 
by Holly Hunter, has been dumb from the age of six. She uses the piano as a 
means of expression. It acts as a possession from the old world into the new and 
becomes a means of exchanging sexual favours with Harvey Keitel. Ada was this 
untutored, eccentric, strong-willed character who composed anything she 
wanted. Holly Hunter, who’s a fairly good pianist, performed my music on 
shot. With Peter Greenaway I just threw my music at him; with this I had to 
write the music around the character. The music had to be suitable for the 
medium, be derived from late-1860s Romantic and Scottish folk song and be 
mobile and emotional enough to support the content of the film’s plot.’ 

The film, now titled The Piano, was a runaway success on release in 1992. 
Nyman’s addictive but simple piano themes were indeed a memorable in- 
gredient. Moreover Nyman was inspired by Holly Hunter’s Oscar-winning 
performance. He recalls: ‘She took the work under her wing and made it very 
intense and very personalized. It was fluid and lyrical and much less mechanistic 
than if I’d done it. For The Piano album [1993], an actress showed me how to 
perform my own music.’ 

By this stage Nyman was composing in South-west France, where he had a 
house fitted out with a studio. He had used electronic keyboards in the past and 
here he had a computer and keyboard set-up. Though he liked technology his 
favoured means were the acoustic piano and paper. The Piano album and film 
seemed to define Nyman. He made several more recordings of the music and 
toured it to ecstatic audiences. At the time he was getting offers that before were 
unthinkable. He commented: ‘Before, it was occasional concerts — National 
Theatre foyer; bandstands on beaches; outside art galleries rather than inside art 
galleries — pretty scrappy. Now people, particularly in the film industry, know I 
exist.’ In 1997 Nyman appeared alongside popular musicians like Lou Reed, 
Laurie Anderson, Ryuichi Sakamoto (all inspired by Minimalism) and the 
author Salman Rushdie in a gala new-music event in London’s Festival Hall. 
After a mesmerizing performance of the reiterative folk theme from The Piano 
Nyman received a standing ovation. Having persisted in championing Minim- 
alism in the UK, he had finally triumphed. 



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LISTENING 

The Draughtsman’s Contract (Charisma 1982) 

Drowning By Numbers (Virgin Venture 1988) 

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (Virgin (Venture 1989) 

The Nyman- Greenaway Soundtracks (Virgin Venture 1989) 

Prospero’s Books (Decca 1991) 

The Piano (Virgin Venture 1993) 

Michael Nyman Live (Virgin Venture 1994) 

The Very Best Of Michael Nyman: Film Music 1980-2001 (Virgin Venture 2001) 

From the very first time Nyman went into a studio he fell in love with the 
layering process of multi-track recording. When he began working with Peter 
Greenaway, the violinist Alexander Balanescu, saxophonist John Harle and 
producer David Cunningham would all play key roles. The Draughtsman’s 
Contract is still Nyman’s most spritely and immediate recording, alternating 
between humorous reworkings of baroque music and sonorous arrangements. 
Drowning By Numbers, influenced by Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, is beautifully 
reflective and elegiac. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover is part 
strident, part melancholy, and accurate in its aural representation of a lurid 
Jacobean passion-killing starring Helen Mirren. More importantly, it features 
the first Nyman choral writing for film. The Nyman- Greenaway Soundtracks is a 
boxed set. 

Vocal writing would be fully expressed in Nyman’s splendid final collabora- 
tion with Greenaway, Prospero’s Books, in 1991. At the time Nyman reflected on 
recording soundtracks: ‘When doing a soundtrack there is usually one recording 
and three mixes - a rough mix to work/ edit to, a final playback mix for the film 
and another mix for the album.’ Nyman and engineer Mike Dutton did 
extensive work on Prospero’s Books in Abbey Road Studios. The album involved 
digital recording and computerized mixing techniques. Lots of electronic effects 
were also used to alter and improve the sound. The results are sumptuous, 
running the full gamut of Nyman’s abilities. 

At the time Nyman told me of his perceptions of recording music, among the 
clearest insights ever into the process: ‘Classical recording is vertical and 
incomplete. Complete texture is derived from short takes which are in the 
end edited together. My way is horizontal but incomplete. The texture is in the 
tracks I lay down but the picture is not complete until the mix.’ The multi- 
million-selling album The Piano was recorded in Munich with members of The 
Michael Nyman Band and the Munich Philharmonic. Nyman’s own piano 
pieces are a career best. Michael Nyman Live is a summation; recorded in Spain, it 
features The Piano and music recorded with Moroccan musicians. The inter- 
esting Film Music disc includes Nyman’s music for directors as diverse as Patrice 
Leconte, Volker Schlondorff and Neil Jordan. 



160 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


JOHN ADAMS 

After nearly twenty-five years of creativity the American Minimalist composer 
John Adams made a statement in early 1997 which in essence is the watchword 
for this entire book: ‘There’s a vast synthesis happening now. All genres are 
beginning to collapse.’ His belief that several styles could inhabit the same 
musical experience meant that his creations were cross-pollinations which 
skitted across the entire century of music and beyond. Adams used Minimalism 
to forge a more expansive expression, one that embraced both popular and 
classical music, and one that became increasingly successful with the public. He 
revealed that Minimalism was versatile enough to embrace contemporary news 
story ( Nixon In China , 1987), top-quality commercial recordings ( The Chairman 
Dances , 1986) and pure electronic music (. Hoodoo Zephyr , 1993). In many ways 
he is the twentieth century’s last great Minimalist creator. 

John Adams was bom in 1947 in Massachusetts to a pair of musicians. His sax- 
playing father met his mother, a popular singer, in a New Hampshire dance hall 
by a lake one summer in the 1940s. Adams’s childhood was full of movement 
around New England, from Boston to East Concord via Woodstock. In his 
family no lines were drawn between the classical music of Haydn and Mozart 
and the jazz styles of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. Adams started on 
the clarinet at eight and was composing at the remarkably young age of eleven. 
He joined his father’s marching band and was considered so gifted that by his 
early teens he was conducting his own music in the community orchestra. 

A local hero, Adams easily gained a scholarship to study at Harvard University 
in Boston after leaving high school in the mid-1960s. He immediately con- 
nected with several orchestras, including the Boston Symphony and, following 
in the footsteps of his hero Leopold Stokowski, began to make a name for 
himself as a conductor. Like John Cale before him, he was invited by Leonard 
Bernstein to Tanglewood Conservatory. Also like Cale (who would go on to 
fame in the proto-Minimalist rock band The Velvet Underground), Adams was 
impressed by the possibilities inherent in rock music and admired the intense 
psychedelia of Cream, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, who all sprang to fame in 
1967. He dallied with the hippie mood of the times and by 1969 was 
investigating Donald Buchla’s synthesizer, which the Harvard music department 
had installed that year. 

Like most young men of his era, Adams got a draft notice to fight in the 
Vietnam war. He avoided this by staying on at Harvard for another two years to 
do a Master’s degree. Most of his time at college had been spent studying fairly 
difficult Serial music and though he admired Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, he 
did not feel his own musical instincts were completely in that direction. By 
1971, inspired by the writings of John Cage and William Burroughs, he was 
thinking of new avenues. John Cage revealed to him that ‘silence’ was as 
important an instrument in music as sound. Burroughs’s cut-up method and 



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pliability with words showed that technique need not be a barrier to humour or 
popularity. In the summer of 1971 Adams headed west, to San Francisco and a 
new life in music. 

His first year there was inconspicuous, spent in manual labour on the docks. 
In 1972 he was taken up by the San Francisco Conservatory, where he taught 
and cajoled students into New Music. He conducted their Ensemble and in 
1973 came up with the ‘dream polyphony’ of American Standard . Here Adams 
used reeds and strings to evoke an extreme melancholy. Long-held notes and 
isolated tones gave it the elegiac flavour of American nostalgia. Divided into 
three parts, ‘John Philip Sousa’, ‘Christian Zeal And Activity’ and ‘Sentimen- 
tals’, it had a middle section which contained found material related to 
evangelism while the third section quotes directly from Duke Ellington. Adams 
allowed a Cageian openness in the work’s preparation. This highly original 
piece, inspired by Cornelius Cardew in the UK, was one of the first recordings 
which Brian Eno chose (with the help of English composer Gavin Bryars) for his 
Obscure Records label in 1975. Because of this Adams instantly became aligned 
with Ambient music and was seen as being among the cream of new American 
composers. 

That year he made Lo-Fi , derived from old speakers, car radios, 78rpm 
records and broken turntables. He also began building his own synthesizers and 
through trial and error achieved a fairly effective range of integrated circuits and 
filters. Adams was to spend three years in this study, refining the systems he was 
building. In electronics he had found a fresh approach to music, one that did not 
accord with the rigidity of his Serial musical education. Themes of tonality and 
pulsation were also being echoed in the music of the first generation of 
Minimalists as Steve Reich and Philip Glass performed in San Francisco with 
their respective ensembles. Adams loved Reich’s Drumming and even conducted 
his luminous Music For Mallet Instruments , Voices And Organ in 1977. In response 
Adams came up with Phrygian Gates and Shaker Loops. 

These pieces of music, dating from 1977—8, exemplify Adams enriched sonic 
vocabulary. Phyrygian Gates , for rhythmical piano, refers in its title to both old 
Greek musical modes and voltage controls, or ‘gates’. Shaker Loops , an oscillating 
work for seven strings, owed its title to the seminal tape loops of Steve Reich 
and a childhood memory of an old religious Shaker colony in New Hampshire. 
At nearly thirty minutes apiece, these creations established Adams as a purveyor 
of an unpredictable branch of Minimalism where rigid systems were passed over 
for a greater emotional content. One minute an Adams composition could be as 
still as anything by Brian Eno, the next it could burst through with all the force 
of a Mahlerian flourish. Nineteen seventy-eight also saw Adams given the post 
of new music adviser to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, of which he 
would become composer in residence in the 1980s. 

Adams opened the decade with the exceptional Common Tones In Simple 
Time, a floating, glistening, vibrating hue of strings, pianos, oboes, flutes and 
finger cymbals which recalled Japanese and other Eastern musics. In contrast, 



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Adams’s large pieces of this period seem to recall a Romantic spirit. Harmonium 
(1981) required a cast of nearly 300 players and singers. More relevant was the 
controversial Grand Pianola Music (1982), which divided critics and audiences. In 
just over thirty minutes Adams conjoins the shimmering quality of American 
Minimalism with an almost cartoon array of big-band climaxes, Hollywood 
sirens, marching-band dmms and Wagnerian excess. Its winds, brass, and hefty 
percussion are augmented by two pianos, which open the two movements of 
the piece in pure Reichian mode, one played slightly behind the other. As other 
instrumentation delicately entered, no one could expect the sheer boom of 
sound that would follow. This sounded more like a Busby Berkeley soundtrack 
of the 1930s or that of a 40s Broadway spectacular, its evolving piano bombast 
not unlike that of Liberace. Adams was roundly criticized for vulgarizing 
American music. Yet taken on their own, the Minimalist passages were 
masterly. 

During a return visit to New Hampshire Adams met theatre director Peter 
Sellars and writer Alice Goodman. They had a novel idea to set to music the 
former US president Richard Nixon’s ground-breaking visit to Mao Tse-Tung 
in 1972. The opera Nixon In China would take Adams nearly four years to write. 
The excerpt titled The Chairman Dances — intended to convey the dancing scene 
of Nixon and Mao and their wives in the great banqueting hall in Beijing - is 
full of both humour and nostalgia for a bygone Hollywood era. The piece 
became the title sequence for an impressive album released in 1986, a record 
which contained a box of Adams jewels including the incredibly quiet, slowly 
moving, mysterious and almost ethereal Tromba Lontana (Distant Trumpet). 

Nixon In China was premiered in 1 987 at the Houston Grand Opera. It travelled 
America and made Adams a star. Here were the distinctive triads of classic 
Minimalism used to highlight an historic situation which was contemporary 
and ironic. Both Nixon and Mao were now consigned to memory but back in 
1972 were at the height of their media lives. The opera had the realistic feel of 
television newscast but was an ironic send-up of the bloated self-confidence of 
Nixon, Kissinger, Mao and his calculating wife Jiang Ching. It was eventually 
broadcast on US television to millions of viewers. The Elektra-Nonesuch 
recording of Nixon In China won a 1 989 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary 
Composition. Adams was now seen as the voice of New Minimalism. 

Like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives before him, Adams was forging a 
distinctly American music full of popular idioms. Fearful Symmetries (1988) was a 
rumbustious kinetic creation which used brass, pianos, horns, synthesizers and 
samplers and filled the listener with the train rhythms of American travel and 
Adams’s trademark big-band blast-offs. Contrary to that were two requiems for 
death, both finished in 1989. The Wound Dresser was written at the time Adams’s 
father was succumbing to a fatal illness. This piece for voice, violin and trumpet 
was based on a Walt Whitman poem from the American Civil War. Equally 
plaintive was the instrumental Eros Piano , dedicated to one of the great 
originators of Ambient music, Morton Feldman. 



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163 


Adams showed in 1991 that he was adept at intense emotionalism when he 
used classical choral writing and Eastern and Greek dramatic settings for his next 
opera, The Death OfKlinghoffer. Again this had a contemporary theme, the Arab- 
Israeli conflict played out against a single event: the 1985 Palestinian hijacking of 
the cruise ship the Achille Lauro and the subsequent murder of a Jewish 
passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Most observers were wont to ask if John Adams 
was a Minimalist any more. His Chamber Symphony (1992) and Violin Concerto 
(1993) were so fulsome and complex in their lyricism that they seemed to be 
drawn from the grand classical tradition rather than any strain of Minimalism. 
Then Adams released an entire album of electronic music, brimming with all the 
Minimalist ammunition in his creative armoury. 

Hoodoo Zephyr (1993) features eight tracks of pulsing, shimmering Minimalist 
music. It uses various modern synthesizers, keyboards, sampling boxes, effects 
units and an Apple Macintosh computer mnning sequencing software, all of 
which gives the recording its repetitive Minimalist character. Adams said at the 
time: ‘I have always been interested in electronic instruments and one thing that 
keeps me composing is the possibility of discovering new sound worlds. Since 
the 1960s synthesizers have become more sophisticated, more malleable, and 
combining them with acoustic instruments is like a new form of alchemy.’ 
Adams admitted to loving the smoothness of transitions. Hoodoo Zephyr also 
functions as a sonic tapestry full of Americana from Ry Cooder-styled desert 
guitar paintings to hypnotic soundtrack. 

Adams would apply his new-found love of technology to his next important 
creation, El Dorado, which appeared in 1996. Here he blended sounds from his 
synthesizers and samplers with the timbres of an orchestra. Like Glass, he 
accentuated the acoustic instmments with a sampled, electronic equivalent in a 
process called ‘doubling’. The accentuation suited the haunting music, parti- 
cularly the serene passages in the first and second movements. El Dorado was 
Adams’s take on the discovery of the New World. In line with the Christopher 
Columbus celebrations of 1991 (when it was written), Adams wished to 
sonically capture the rape of the earth in the first movement, ‘The Dream 
Of Gold’, which he described as ‘a series of upward moving vectors’. ‘Solitudes’, 
the second movement, conveys the tranquillity of the rainforest, plopping 
sounds accentuated later by rising strings which hark back to the insistence of 
Shaker Loops. 

At the end of the twentieth century, Adams redefined Minimalism. Like Ives 
(who connects with Adams’s background through his famous Concord Sonata of 
1920), he has embraced American popular culture and made historical con- 
nections to a music which ends up being neither new nor old. Mindful of 
innovators like Edgard Varese and John Cage, Adams has absorbed Serialism, 
psychedelic rock, the core Minimalism of Glass, Riley and Reich, jazz, 
Broadway musical and pure electronic music to create a synthesis entirely 
his own. In 1996 he premiered I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The 
Sky, a cycle of twenty-five ‘songs’ based on the writings of the black poet June 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Jordan. This creation honoured black music history. Another symbol of Adams’s 
open vision of music was the 1997 release of his conducted version of the film 
music of Torn Takemitsu, a celebration of another modern composer who 
looked to popular art form for inspiration. 

LISTENING 

Ensemble Pieces (Obscure 1975) 

The Chairman Dances (Elektra/Nonesuch 1986) 

Fearful Symmetries (Elektra/Nonesuch 1989) 

American Elegies (Elektra/Nonesuch 1991) 

Hoodoo Zephyr (Elektra/Nonesuch 1993) 

Grand Pianola Music (Elektra/Nonesuch 1994) 

El Dorado (Elektra/Nonesuch 1996) 

Shaker Loops (Nonesuch 1996) 

The John Adams Earbox (Nonesuch 1999) 

Naive And Sentimental Music (Nonesuch 2002) 

The English conductor Simon Rattle once said that he had no interest in 
Minimalism until he heard the music of John Adams. And it is certainly worth 
hearing. The Obscure disc, from 1975, did much to establish Adams in 
European consciousness as it was produced and released by Brian Eno. Adams 
shares space with Gavin Bryars and Christopher Hobbs but his American Standard 
is a singular Ambient work which is made all the more memorable by the 
interpolation of a radio argument between a cynical broadcaster and a religious 
zealot. The next album, The Chairman Dances, was a classic disc in 1986 and still 
is. Released on CD only a year after its record pressing, it is played by the San 
Francisco Symphony under Adams’s friend Edo De Waart. The disc contains 
another version of ‘Christian Zeal And Activity’ from the Obscure disc but also 
the archetypal Minimalist creations Tromba Lontana and Common Tones In Simple 
Time. The futuristic Short Ride In A Fast Machine (at only four minutes) became 
Adams’s most played piece. The title track (also known as Foxtrot For Orchestra) is 
a variation on a theme from his hit opera Nixon In China. With its image of 
Chinese villagers welcoming a dignitary, The Chairman Dances is one of the best 
albums ever released by a Minimalist musician. 

Those who like their Minimalism with a lot of verve will love the Orchestra 
of St Luke’s under Adams on Fearful Symmetries, a piece which is packaged with 
the doleful The Wound Dresser, a tribute to the dead and wounded of the 
American Civil War. American Elegies is a wonderful disc of Adams, orchestra, 
Dawn Upshaw’s voice and Paul Crossley’s piano. It includes the 1989 piece Eros 
Piano and various pieces by Morton Feldman (the dedicatee of Eros Piano) and 
one of Adams’s great heroes Charles Ives. Hoodoo Zephyr is an essential Adams 
electronic album, created entirely in his writing studio in Berkeley. The music is 
enriching and sublime and reveals just how good new computer music and 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


165 


sampling technology is in the hands of a master craftsman. Grand Pianola Music is 
one of Adams’s most derided pieces, but also contains some of his most 
mellifluous instrumentations. El Dorado is a deft melding of orchestration with 
spooky electronic tones. The disc also contains Adams’s arrangements of Cradle 
Song and The Black Gondola, two elegies, the first to Ferruccio Busoni’s mother, 
the other to Wagner by Franz Liszt, the latter revealing Adams’s love of 
Romanticism. Both were recorded in London. Shaker Loops is a recording 
of the 1993 orchestral version of the 1977 septet. It still holds together all of 
Adams’s stylistic flair: furtive but insistent string playing, tonal pools of still 
sound, rising and subsiding oscillations and a sense of sadness. Adams is happy to 
comment in the sleeve note that Shaker Loops was quoted in the soundtrack to 
Barfly, an LA-set film starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway based on the 
alcoholic skid-row life of writer Charles Bukowski. 

The John Adams Earbox is a century’s-end career summation containing 
twenty-four works on ten CDs and a fabulous 180-page booklet. It includes 
three new recordings of the orchestral works Harmonium, Lollapalooza and 
Slonimsky’s Earbox. With Naive And Sentimental Music Adams embraces the 
whole symphonic tradition but peppered with subtle references to the 1960s 
music of The Beatles and Spirit. 


ARVO PART 

In 1984 Manfred Eicher of ECM was convinced that he had to begin a new 
branch to his already successful ECM label, for composers. His New Series, as he 
described it, was as a result of hearing the spiritually resonant music of Arvo Part 
on the radio. Eicher’s reaction to the music is worth quoting. ‘What moved me in 
his music was clarity — the direct path to ear and mind, a drama of quiet passion. 
The music was cathartic, a music of slowly beating wings. A drawing-inward of all 
feeling, as if the music were burying itself in a crypt of its own making: pitiless and 
solitary. A music of innermost calm demanding concentration from the musicians 
as well as from the listeners. These compositions didn’t make the vulnerable soul 
turn inward; they created a dialectic of action and stillness.’ 

Part’s music is simple — organs, bells and voices but sounded with maximum 
effect and timbre. Silence is an appropriate portion of his compositional style, as 
is his use of Gregorian chant and simple triadic scales. Many who heard his 
almost religious ECM debut, Tabula Rasa, in 1984, were struck by the use of a 
single church bell and the audacious placing of the voices, which piled one on 
top of another until the volume reached breaking point. If Part seemed to, 
shaman-like, stumble out of the Orthodox Church of his Estonian past it was all 
down to the music of Steve Reich, which he heard in the 1970s and which 
confirmed his own rejection of Serialism. Part’s arrival in the West in the 1980s 
(sonically speaking) was heralded as part of the ‘new simplicity’ — a take on 



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Minimalism which had its roots in the very different cultural experiences of 
those who for years were shrouded from view by the Iron Curtain. 

Part, like the American Minimalists, was born in the 1930s, 1935 to be exact. 
He grew up in Estonian isolation but had been taking piano lessons since the age 
of eight. Starved of musical stimulus, he plumped for marching-band music in 
the Russian forces during his National Service years. By 1958 he had enrolled in 
the Music Conservatory in Tallinn and simultaneously got a job as a technician 
at Estonian Radio. He experimented with musical styles, drawing first on 
Russian composers and then Schoenberg. In fact the minute he aired Serial 
technique, the authorities were down on him. Not for the first time was he 
considered a musical subversive. 

During the 1960s Part was influenced by the dense writing of Ligeti and even 
the ‘indeterminacy’ of John Cage. Yet some of his writing was accessible 
enough to win prizes in Moscow in 1962. He graduated in 1963 but stayed on at 
Estonian Radio. His symphonic work continued to be heavy-going but in 1968 
his Credo looked to both Jesus Christ and choral peace for resolution. It was 
outwardly banned by the Russian government and Part left the radio station to 
write for Soviet films, a task he relished as it involved neither deep thought nor 
much emotional commitment. This he was keeping for his own music, which 
was going to undergo a radical change. 

During the 1970s Part punched out more than fifty film scores but all this time 
he was refining his personal vision. He studied and studied: Franco-Flemish choral 
music, Gregorian chant, polyphonic singing from thirteenth-century Notre - 
Dame and Renaissance music. The results could first be heard in the uplifting 
Third Symphony (1971). More study and reflection led Part to the sounds of the 
Orthodox Church, with its bells, incense-laden ritual and mellifluous echoed 
chanting. In 1976 he published the Satie-like Fur Alina (For Alina), its quiet triadic 
style finding no favour with the Composers’ Union. Tired of Soviet restrictions, 
he fled to Vienna with his wife and two children, gained Austrian citizenship and 
settled in what was then West Berlin in late 1981. 

Part had brought with him new compositions of extraordinary simplicity and 
grandeur. He had heard Satie, he had heard Reich. He noticed something 
important about John Cage’s avowal of the importance of ‘silence’. He made 
equations with ages-old abbeys and their fondness for bells. In searching for a 
music of ‘time and timelessness’ he came up with Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin 
Britten (a melody which dates from the time of the English composer’s death in 
December 1976). In this short but devastating piece the emotional swelling of the 
famous Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 can be heard in tandem with slowly 
building voices and the tolling of a single bell. Another work, Fratres (Brothers), 
isolated violin drones and decorative Minimalist piano notes. Silence and simple 
triads filled Tabula Rasa, for piano and violins, composed, like Fratres, in 1977. All 
these pieces were released by Manfred Eicher in 1984 to worldwide acclaim. 

Living almost like a hermit in Berlin, Part prefers silence to hustle and 
bustle. ‘Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


167 


when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a 
moment of silence, comfort me. I work with very few elements - with one 
voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials - with the 
triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells.’ He 
was unrepentant about taking five years to come up with new material. In 
1987, having been moved by the death the previous year of Andrei Tarkovsky 
— the Russian film-maker who made a virtue out of his religious faith and 
slowly changing, almost static, tableaux - Part sanctioned the release of Arbos 
(Latin for ‘tree’) with its extreme but wholly convincing series of organ, string 
and voice works aimed on high. 

Part’s penchant for the Orthodox Mass and the suffering of Jesus Christ on 
the way to the Cross was revealed on three recordings for ECM from the late 
1980s and early 1990s: Passio, Miserere and Te Deum. Passio is an eighty-minute 
rendition of St John’s suffering. Strings, voices, organ and the echoes of a 
cavernous church are combined to bring back the music of a bygone age, an age 
when faith alone was enough philosophy to live by, the celebration of that faith 
and its musical affirmation, the very life force itself. Yet Part’s music sounds 
incredibly modern, his adaptation of Minimalism for a spiritual music is precise, 
never overblown or bombastic. His work is shorn of all the conceit and sheer 
luxury of Romantic music and in its strange way rejects any of the mechanical 
sleight of hand of the poorer examples of Minimalism. Part’s creations are a ‘new 
simplicity’ but in their profound content they have a spiritual resonance eagerly 
appreciated in the last years of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the 
new millennium. 

LISTENING 

Arvo Part’s music is essential listening to anyone reading this book. Tabula Rasa 
(ECM 1984) is simply astonishing, the Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten 
riveting, the descending power of the Stuttgart Orchestra recalling Mahler and 
Wagner at their most potent. Keith Jarrett (piano) and Gidon Kremer (violin) 
hit it off wonderfully on Fratres. Jarrett, in particular, has rarely played such 
spartan but effective notes. Arbos (ECM 1987) begins Part’s successful recording 
partnership with the Hilliard Ensemble and contains a variety of pieces. Pari 
Intervallo (‘with equal intervals’), written in 1976, is a beguiling meditation for 
organ which seems to slow down time. Stabat Mater, which dates from 1985, is a 
gorgeously hypnotic unflowering of voices and strings. Silence and choral 
celebration are intertwined on Te Deum (ECM 1993), sung by the Estonian 
Philharmonic Chamber Choir and recorded in a Finnish church. As an 
introduction to Part’s choral works, Beatus ( Blessed ) (Virgin 1997) includes 
four new works plus performances by the Estonian Chamber Choir and is 
supervised by the composer himself. 

In 1999 ECM made available new recordings of Fur Alina ( For Alina) and 
Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror Within A Mirror) - spare works for piano and strings 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


which achieved the composer’s intended effect of ‘calm, exalted, listening to 
one’s inner self’. 


HENRYK GORECKI 

As a fount of the ‘new simplicity’ there is no better example than the Pole 
Henryk Gorecki. In 1992 his Symphony No. 3 , or Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs, 
was released in the West to unprecedented acclaim. Not alone did this arcing, 
almost religious work top all the classical music charts but it even got to number 
one in the rock and popular music charts in the UK. With over a million sales to 
date, Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 has become a symbol of post-Holocaust, post- 
Communist spiritual fortitude and carries a resounding empathy with human 
suffering everywhere. Rooted in fifteenth- century Polish prayer and folk song, 
the slow ascent to the vocal and down again has all the resonances of 
Minimalism - but a Minimalism of emotion rather than form. 

One could liken Gorecki’s vocal music to the early choral works of Stock- 
hausen. Both men come from backgrounds of adversity, both have suffered 
because of oppressive regimes. Both went on to transcend their backgrounds 
and gain fame and fortune in the modem music market. The potency of 
Gorecki’s music comes in no small way from Poland itself — a land invaded by 
the Nazis at the start of the Second World War and then annexed by Soviet 
Russia in its aftermath. Born in the coal-mining region of Silesia in 1933, 
Gorecki first opted for teaching before gaining admittance to the Conservatory 
in Katowice, the region’s capital. This was in 1955, when Gorecki was 
fascinated by Anton Webern and Serialism. In the wake of Stalin, Gorecki, 
like others, threw himself into the avant-garde, and both Symphony No. 1 (1959) 
and Scontri (Collisions) (1960) explored extreme sound spectmms in orchestral 
music. 

Scontri made a spectacular impact at the 1960 Warsaw Music Festival but 
outraged Communist officialdom. This furore coincided with the graduation of 
the recently married Gorecki and his departure to Paris for further study. After 
returning to Poland, Gorecki had to resign himself to the country’s growing 
conservative climate but was determined to live there and went back to 
Katowice to raise a family. In 1963 he wrote Three Pieces In Olden Style, a 
slow Ambient creation for strings with harmonic elements close to Debussy and 
the modality of sixteenth-century Polish folk music. In the late sixties came Old 
Polish Music, an orchestral work built out of Gorecki’s love of medieval and 
Renaissance music. 

Gorecki taught and wrote, continuously refining his style. His Symphony No. 
2, dedicated to the famous astronomer Copernicus, arrived in 1972, full of 
prayers and the plainsong style of fourteenth-century choral music. Gorecki 
found spiritual sustenance in both the mral hinterland of Katowice, with its 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


169 


Tatra Mountains, woodlands, valleys, farmers and craftsmen, and the Catholic 
Church. His Amen of 1973 is an extraordinary Minimalist composition, with its 
repetition of a single word and the slow build-up of potency until the harmonies 
form a wall of echoing sound. In this grand expression of spiritual thankfulness 
Gorecki had already laid the foundations for his future triumph. 

This work of greatness was to precede a period of acute illness and with- 
drawal. To ease the pressure of academic work he took up a job as rector at his 
old school in Katowice in 1975. Though he is said to have embroidered 
elements of Beethoven and Chopin into its fabric, Symphony No. 3 (1976) has its 
roots in church and folk music, not to mention the terrible legacy of the 
Holocaust. Katowice is situated close to the site of the notorious Nazi death 
camp Auschwitz and it was in another camp, at nearby Zakopane, that Gorecki 
found something extraordinary. There, on a wall in one of the cells, was a 
simple inscription from an eighteen-year-old girl, dated 1944: ‘No mother, do 
not weep, most chaste Queen of Heaven.’ This would form the centrepiece of a 
remarkable creation, located between Monastic church song from the fifteenth 
century and regional folk melody. Using the centuries-old technique of the 
canon, where theme is passed from one instrument to another, Gorecki 
fashioned three movements that were sonically symmetrical and packed a huge 
emotional wallop. On paper it was strings and one soprano voice, but in acoustic 
space it was Minimalism of rare emotional ferocity. 

In 1977 Gorecki deservedly took up his place as Professor of Music at 
Katowice Conservatory. He continued to write for a variety of instruments 
but in 1979 he resigned his post in protest at the harsh economic and social 
conditions prevailing in Poland at the time. In 1980 along came Lech Walesa 
and the Solidarity movement — a time when Gorecki was eulogized in 
America for the Minimalism of his Harpsichord Concerto and honoured by 
having his Beatus performed for the then recently elected Pope John Paul II, 
the first Polish pope in history. Gorecki continued to fashion serenely 
beautiful music, and his O Domina Nostra (To Our Lady), written in 1982 
for voice and organ, is another example of his devotional Minimalism 
coloured by his love of folk song. 

Illness returned in the mid-1980s but Gorecki again displayed a fierce will to 
live by composing another piece of aural serenity in Lotus Tuus (Wholly Thine), 
specially written for a High Mass in Warsaw celebrated by Pope John Paul in 
1987. Gorecki was getting interest from the Kronos Quartet in the US and 
several Polish recordings of Symphony No. 3 were circulating in the West. He 
went to the UK in 1989 to prepare for the classic recording of the work in 1991 . 
The following year he visited the US and his celebrity quickly spread. 

Working in his own way he continued to base himself in Katowice with his 
wife and two children. Revenues from the Nonesuch recording of Symphony 
No. 3 allowed him to buy a house in his beloved Tatra Mountains, the better air 
and setting intended to ease his delicate health. His instrumental writing could 
be harsh, as in his string quartet work, but there is no doubt that his quieter, 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


more spiritual output like the Miserere of 1994 cemented the idea of a new kind 
of Minimalism worldwide. 

LISTENING 

There are now many recordings of music by Gorecki on the market. The 
essential million-selling Symphony No. 3, or Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs 
(Nonesuch), features the American soprano Dawn Upshaw in a performance 
of a lifetime. Recorded in London in 1991 by the London Sinfonietta under 
conductor David Zinman, the disc not only represents a zenith of the ‘new 
simplicity’ but one of the best orchestral recordings of all time. The panoramic 
sound was achieved by rock engineer Bob Ludwig. O Domina Nostra (To Our 
Lady) (ECM 1992), for organ and voice, was produced by Manfred Eicher and 
again achieves the perfect balance between Minimalism and folk spirituality. It is 
dedicated fittingly to the symbol of Polish independence, the Black Virgin of 
Jasna Gora. Ikos (EMI Classics 1994) places Gorecki fittingly in the company of 
John Tavener and Arvo Part. The album’s two spiritual prayers are crystalline 
evocations of Gorecki’s art, Lotus Tuus climbing from near-silence to grand 
expression with the minimum of means — the Choir of King’s College, 
Cambridge and the resonant acoustics of the church. 

Ambient Trance producer William Orbit released electronic versions of 
Gorecki’s 1963 work Pieces In Olden Style on his long-awaited modem classical 
album Pieces in a Modern Style (WEA 2000). 


JOHN TAVENER 

During the 1990s John Tavener sprang to fame as the UK’s most popular 
composer of the ‘new simplicity’. His spartan vocal and instmmental composi- 
tions evolved from a deep Christianity, the hallowed ground of the Greek and 
Russian Orthodox Church and its rituals. His use of repetition, major chords 
and monophonic voices made his textures seem simply translucent. The 
mnaway popular success in 1992—3 of creations such as The Protecting Veil 
and The Last Sleep Of The Virgin was due to the fact that, like the work of Arvo 
Part and Henryk Gorecki, Tavener’s music simply spoke to the world in a quiet 
but crystalline fashion. Like the Minimalism of the 1960s and 70s, his work 
seemed egoless, unfettered by pretension or complexity. Hence the use of his 
1993 Song For Athene at the funeral mass in London in 1997 of Diana, Princess of 
Wales. 

Tavener was born in London in 1944, a year before the end of the Second 
World War. He was brought up a Presbyterian, his father playing organ in their 
local Hampstead church. He went to nearby Highgate School and had decided 
to become a composer after hearing the late sacred music of the century’s most 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


171 


famous pagan, Igor Stravinsky. Tavener quickly gained admittance to the Royal 
Academy of Music in the early 1960s. There he met David Lumsdaine and 
Lennox Berkeley, two composers who introduced their young protege to 
electronics and modern French music, particularly Messiaen. Like the latter, 
Tavener began to play church organ, and he was still at the Academy when he 
began to give recitals in St John’s Church, Kensington. On graduation in 1965 
he won a prize in Monaco for his version of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, 
a piece combining text and music which drew on medieval and Catholic 
sources. 

Though Tavener has often decried the popularity of Serialism during his 
education, the severe simplicity advocated by Webern and the sound of early 
Stockhausen have flowed unchecked through his music. Indeed his early use of 
tape owes much to Stockhausen. Tavener was to have almost instantaneous 
success in 1968 when two works were premiered, In Alium (Ever Changing) and 
The Whale. Both used voice, orchestra and tape, the latter being more lavish in 
its use of electric keyboards and sound. Tavener was ingenious in his use of 
silence to heighten the effect of his work. The Whale recalled the biblical story of 
Jonah being swallowed by a whale and spat out again. It had instant appeal 
among the hippie generation and attracted The Beatles. Alongside his Celtic 
Requiem (1969), which displayed an interest in both Celtic mysticism and 
children’s singing, The Whale was featured on an album released on The Beatles’ 
Apple label in 1970. Tavener was at once a popular success and was also feted by 
the academic world, having become Professor of Music at Trinity College, 
London, a year earlier. 

But Tavener was looking for a deeper spirituality. He wanted to leave works 
like Three Surrealist Songs, a 1968 piece for voice, piano, bongos and tape, behind 
him. He lost himself in the writings of St John of the Cross and drew guidance 
from the Irish prior of a Carmelite Monastery in southern England. When the 
prior died in 1972, Tavener wrote a tribute, Little Requiem For Father Malachy 
Lynch. In this one can hear the use of voices, followed by stingingly Minimalist 
instrumentation — a humming effect known as unison. His tributes to saints and 
Catholicism were overshadowed by a shift to the iconography and teachings of 
the Orthodox Church, notably its Russian and Greek variants. In 1974 he 
married a Greek lady, Victoria. His 1976 dedication to the Russian orthodoxy, 
Canticle Of The Mother Of God, was followed in 1977 by complete conversion. 
From then on Tavener’s music became more progressively stripped of orna- 
mentation, more steeped in the austerity of ritual. Even his titles had an archaic 
ring about them — for example, The Immurement Of Antigone, from the late 
1970s, which concerns the walling up of the Greek mythical heroine after the 
story by Sophocles. 

Tavener could never be accused of resting on his laurels. A glance at his 
output reveals that he written more than forty works by 1980. Yet those for 
which he is best known were yet to come. There was Funeral Ikos (1981), a 
simple sung alleluia which rises and then falls to rest, ‘ ikos ’ being the Greek word 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


for sounds. Then came The Lamb in 1982, a simple melodic interpretation of a 
part of the mystic poet William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence And Experience. In 
Ikon Of Light (1984) Tavener set out his stall for all to see. Over forty minutes 
one heard intense repetitions followed by echoing silences, single Greek words 
sung in canons or rounds, Byzantine chant, descending and ascending scales, 
drones and an epiphanous or light-filled sound. Its central theme was a mystic 
prayer by the Orthodox poet St Simeon Stylites, which talked of the ‘uncreated 
light of God’ which, in the liturgy, can only be seen by those filled by ‘divine 
grace’. Through careful Minimalist means, Tavener wanted to create other- 
worldly music which reached back as well as upwards for its inspiration. 

This impressive work was followed in 1985 by Two Hymns To The Mother Of 
God , clear but bright choral pieces, dedicated to the composer’s late mother. His 
love of William Blake was again celebrated in an effulgent choral setting, The 
Tyger (1987), which in itself quotes the mode of The Lamb. Tavener’s most 
famous piece, The Protecting Veil , was also written in 1987. Penned for the cellist 
Steven Isserlis, this work again drew its inspiration from Orthodox religion - 
this time a tenth-century vision of the Virgin Mary in Constantinople seen by 
Greeks during a Saracen attack. Tavener described this effusive piece for cello 
and strings as ‘an attempt to make a lyrical ikon in sound’. Its constant cello 
sound, swinging from swallow song to Slavic exquisiteness, was so captivating 
that on its release in 1992 the Virgin album hit the top of the classical charts and 
sold in the hundreds of thousands. The piece, though often mawkish in its use of 
strings, made Tavener internationally famous. 

Tavener’s elegiac music was popular because it was sincere. There was simply 
no contrivance. Tavener chose to close the 1980s with Eonia , a short musical 
tribute to a painter friend based on a haiku sung in Slavonic and English. In 
producing this, Tavener would be helped by Mother Thekla, the Orthodox 
Abbess of a Yorkshire monastery, who also functioned as a spiritual guide. 
During the 1990s Tavener would spend lengthy creative sojourns on the Greek 
island of Ennoia, his writing alternating between huge choral works and shorter 
meditations. In 1991 came his Ambient masterpiece The Last Sleep Of The 
Virgin , a work for handbells and delicate strings where performers were 
instructed to play still and quiet. Even listeners at home were instructed to 
turn down the volume. 

In 1993 came another melancholic creation, Song For Athene, which Tavener 
dedicated to his friend the actress and poet Athene Hariades, who had been 
tragically killed in a road accident. Again a sense of calm was created by the use of 
drones. An example of Tavener’s use of sound space and exotic sources is Innocence 
(1995), which is reminiscent of Ligeti’s work in its use of vertical blocks of massed 
voice and draws on Islamic chant. Like many of his creations, this was written for 
the dimensions of Westminster Abbey. Therefore in 1997 it seemed fitting that 
Song For Athene should be performed in the Abbey at the close of the funeral service 
of Diana, Princess of Wales. Like the Princess’s simple compassion, Tavener’s 
elegiac Minimalism always seemed to strike a chord with a wide public. 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


173 


LISTENING 

There are a lot of Tavener discs on the market. Those new to the composer 
should hear compilation albums like Ikon Of Light (Collins 1994) or Innocence 
(Sony 1995), which include most of the music discussed above. Tavener is 
usually paired with Gorecki and Part on selections of choral music — for 
example, Ikos (EMI 1994) and 20th Century Choral Music (EMI 1996). The best- 
selling The Protecting Veil, played by cellist Steven Isserlis and the London 
Symphony Orchestra, is on Virgin Classics (1992); but The Last Sleep Of The 
Virgin (Virgin Classics 1994) is a superior creation and possibly the definitive 
recording. 


OTHER MINIMALISTS 

Lou Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon in 1917. He allied himself to the 
West Coast music scene and was one of the first to investigate Asian pitch 
systems and instruments. He was taught by Schoenberg and worked with John 
Cage in the 1930s. Cage excited Harrison’s interest in the Javanese gamelan and 
in 1961 he studied in Korea and Japan. Such pieces as The Perilous Chapel (1948) 
are renowned for the delicacy of their organization and the use of drones. He 
incorporated elements like tuned water bowls, finger cymbals and exotic scales 
in his search for a ‘transethnic planetary music’. Hear the excellent disc The 
Perilous Chapel (New Albion 1994) for a wide selection of Harrison’s lovely 
Minimalism. 

Alan Hovhaness is included here for his long-standing incorporation of 
Eastern music into Western tradition. Like Debussy, Stockhausen, Cage and the 
major American Minimalists, Hovhaness strongly believed that the modal 
musics of the Orient brought a calming, meditative quality to the brash 
sonorities of traditional orchestral music. Born in Massachusetts in 1911, 
Hovhaness was the son of Scottish and Armenian parents. He studied astronomy 
and sacred Armenian composition. During further studies at a New England 
conservatory he avidly read the cultural histories of Armenia, China and Japan. 
Long walks in the New Hampshire hills honed a contemplative spirit. His early 
compositions were championed by the conductor Leopold Stokowski. During 
the late 1950s he studied Carnatic raga in Madras in India, and in 1962 he went 
to Japan to study the timeless court style of the Gagaku. He became famous in 
the early 1970s for his use of electronic whale song in his orchestral piece And 
God Created Great Whales. 

The author of hundreds of pieces, Hovhaness composed in a style char- 
acterized by lustrous settings whose use of ethno-modal scales and Oriental 
instrumentation lent his work a dreamlike air. Sadly, he died mid-2000. A good 
introduction is the compilation Hovhaness Collection (Delos 1997). 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


One of the most enduring Ambient/Minimalist recordings ever made is by 
the English composer Gavin Bryars. His The Sinking Of The Titanic was the 
debut album on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 and over the years its 
reputation blossomed to such a degree that it was reissued, in a fuller version by 
Philip Glass, in 1994. Bryars, bom in Yorkshire in 1943, studied composition 
and became a bassist accompanying a host of variety performers, from fire-eaters 
to magicians. He also allied himself to the burgeoning British jazz scene until 
1966. Subsequently he went to America and worked with John Cage. He 
returned to Portsmouth Polytechnic and founded the Portsmouth Sinfonia, 
which was made up of inspired amateurs, among them Brian Eno. Moved by a 
report that a wireless operator had heard and seen the house band of the Titanic 
play until the ship sank on 14 April 1912, Bryars wrote a piece in 1969 based on 
the poetic idea that the music continued to play underwater and would one day 
be heard again when the wreck was salvaged. He even had the piece performed 
by John Adams in San Francisco, but it was the 1975 Obscure recording that 
made its name. The funereal slowness of the string music is accentuated by 
spoken fragments from survivors and the sound of a music box. The music 
draws from the hymn ‘Autumn’ (reportedly the final music heard on the Titanic) 
and various folk and ragtime sources also heard by other survivors. As an 
Ambient wash combining memory, repetition and chance elements, The Sinking 
Of The Titanic is a twentieth-century classic. Its original ‘b’ side was another 
Bryars masterpiece: the plaintive voice of a London tramp, tape-looped and 
offset against a series of incremental melodies played by an ensemble including 
Michael Nyman. This work, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet , was again a classic 
use of repetition, filled to the brim with emotion. In 1993 Philip Glass 
commissioned a new version for his Point Music label — an expansion which 
now featured full orchestra and choirs. Realizing its importance, Virgin Venture 
eventually reissued the original Obscure album on remastered CD in 1998. 
Bryars has also recorded for ECM New Series. 

Wim Mertens is another latter-day composer who has made valuable 
contributions to Minimalism. Bom in Belgium in 1953, Mertens studied at 
the universities of Leuven and Ghent, majoring in Musicology. In 1980 he 
published a ground-breaking study of American Minimal Music , which in 1983 
was circulated in Japan, America and the British Isles and reissued in the 1980s 
and 90s. As well as being a thoroughly musicological survey of early Minimalism 
it also delved into the historical and philosophical implications of the music in 
terms of French ‘sexual philosophy’ and the dialectical thinking of the German 
musicologist Theodor Adorno. Mertens produced various concerts by Glass, 
Reich and Terry Riley for Belgian radio and travelled widely, popularizing the 
form. In 1981 he formed his own group, Soft Verdict, who recorded avidly for 
the Belgian label (Les Disques du) Crepuscule. He has shown an interest in the 
sounds generated by microprocessors, in Gregorian chant and in the ensemble 
sound of both Philip Glass and Michael Nyman. Championed by Nyman, he 
went on to score the Peter Greenaway film The Belly Of An Architect (1987). 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


175 


Also during the 1980s, Mertens worked with the Stockhausen pupil K. 
Goeyvaerts and signed to the New Age Windham Hill label. His recent work 
has been directed towards voice and piano. 

American vocal gymnast and multi-media and performance artist Meredith 
Monk is aligned to the development of Minimalism in that much of her 
stylizations grew out of the form. She has devoted an enormous amount of time 
to the sheer sound of the voice and located this in pared-down repetitive 
musical settings. Her theatre and opera creations recall those of Philip Glass and 
Robert Wilson. Monk was bom in Lima, Peru in 1943. She grew up in New 
Y ork with a family heritage of Hebrew chant and opera singing. She was a 
prodigy, reading music and playing piano at three. As a teenager she combined 
studies in music with those of dance, film and the theatre. By 1965 her voice had 
a three-octave range and could command extensive wordless improvisations. 
She was part of the Downtown New York avant-garde scene and presented 
many ‘happenings’. Her early 1970s work involves tape, acoustic instmments 
and massed voices. The ECM label released her chamber setting Dolmen Music 
(1981) and the stripped-down electronica of her Turtle Dreams (1983), both of 
which gained classic status. She has won many international prizes for both her 
music and her video and film presentations. Though the range of Monk’s voice 
can sometimes jar, she has written some fine music deeply indebted to John 
Cage, as can be heard on the Cage-Monk disc The Tale And Other Compositions 
(Koch 1993). 

Roger Eno defined a style of Minimalism in the 1980s and 90s which drew 
on French Impressionism and English pastoralism for its inspiration. A con- 
summate musician and composer, he made valuable contributions to the Brian 
Eno album Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks (1983) and to the soundtracks of 
the movies Dune (David Lynch, 1984) and 9~ 2 Weeks (Adrian Lyne, 1985). Bom 
in Woodbridge, Suffolk in 1960, Roger Eno was encouraged to compose by a 
tuba-playing schoolteacher. At Colchester Institute he studied the euphonium, 
music history, harmony and performance. His interest in piano was purely 
timbral, long, rising tones being an abiding passion. He taught himself guitar and 
in 1979 went to busk in London, after which he worked as a music therapist to 
young sick children. His brother Brian rang him from New York in 1983 to ask 
for his help on the recording of Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks in Canada. 
Playing piano and DX7 synthesizer, Roger Eno co-composed four tunes 
including ‘Deep Blue Day’ (heard in the 1996 film Trainspotting) and the 
intensely evocative ‘Always Returning’. Revisiting Canada, the younger Eno 
made his first solo album there with Daniel Lanois — Voices (1985), a sound- 
painting inspired by Debussy, Faure, Ravel and, most of all, Erik Satie. Its 
ghostly harmonized washes would define Roger’s twin interest in electronics 
and formal music. Another record, Between Tides (1988), revealed a more 
English side, its woodwind, string and brass additions mindful of both Delius 
and Elgar. Later works expressed an interest in song and instmmentals and the 
use of orchestral samples. Lost In Translation (1994) features Latin texts inspired 



176 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


by Eno’s Flemish background while Swimming (1996) reveals his love of folk 
song and its modalities, fired by reverence for English composers such as 
Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth. Eno considers himself a pianist 
at heart and as recently as 1997 has produced The Music Of Neglected English 
Composers for Resurgence. In 1998 he released a melancholic English-sounding 
chamber album titled The Flatlands. Early recordings are on Editions EG and his 
1990s work is on All Saints, a label which also features him in collaboration with 
the ensemble Channel Light Vessel and the respected reed instrumentalist Kate 
St John. 

Acclaimed by John Cage for her psycho-acoustic work, the American 
electronic musician Pauline Oliveros made a decisive contribution to Minim- 
alism in the form of her 1980s forays into ‘Deep Listening’. Whether it be in the 
caves of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands or in subterranean spaces in North 
America, Oliveros has combined acoustic instruments with delay and echo units 
to produce some of the most compelling dronal music ever heard. Bom in 1932 
in Houston, Texas, she quickly aligned herself with the West Coast tradition, 
studying during the 1950s for six years alongside Terry Riley and Morton 
Subotnick. In the 60s her multi-media tape-based work brought her into 
contact with dancer Merce Cunningham and musician David Tudor, two 
spearheads of the avant-garde. She was a vital asset at the San Francisco Tape 
Center for experimental music and became its director in 1966 when it 
transferred to Mills College, Oakland. There she worked on the Buchla 
synthesizer and then in performance with Terry Riley, whose tape-delay system 
influenced her later sound investigations. She applied Riley’s delay techniques 
to the accordion, her favourite instmment, whose system of keyboard, buttons 
and bellows provided an awesome range of notes for subsequent processing. 
This was allied to her adoption of La Monte Young’s just intonation tuning for 
the instmment and the formation in the 1980s of The Deep Listening Band, a 
trio combining trombone, didgeridoo, accordion and an electronic relay system 
full of delay lines and effects units. 

A move to New York in the late 1980s led to the Pauline Oliveros 
Foundation for new music. The composers’ work of this decade can be sampled 
on the New Albion disc Deep Listening (1989), while the Ambient boxed set 
Driftworks (Big Cat 1997) fully convinces one that Steve Reich’s ‘detailed 
listening’ could be extended to other areas of sound. 

Jon Gibson was born in Los Angeles in 1940. Working with saxophones, the 
visual arts and composition, he performed with Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip 
Glass and La Monte Young from the 1960s onwards. His work ranges from 
simple Satiesque melodic pieces to sound-textural improvisations as exemplified 
by Extensions 2 (1992) for sax, drones and natural sounds. His In Good Company 
(Point Music 1992) is a showcase of Minimalist work performed by Gibson. The 
disc includes material (some unheard) by Adams, Reich, Riley, Glass and Terry 
Jennings. The latter was bom in California and introduced La Monte Young to 
the ideas of John Cage. Jennings studied with Young and was a member of the 



MINIMALISM, ENO AND THE NEW SIMPLICITY 


177 


Fluxus group. It is he who is credited with composing, during the 1950s, the 
first pieces using the Minimalist elements of reduction, repetition, steady pulse 
and expansion of time. 

David Toop became a mainstay of UK Ambient music in the 1990s through 
his Virgin recordings, his writings and his performances. He came to promi- 
nence in 1975 when Brian Eno recorded the album New And Rediscovered 
Musical Instruments for his Obscure label. It featured the sound sculpture of Max 
Eastley on one side and the voice, flute and prepared instruments of Toop on 
the other. Toop, like Eno, developed through the English art-school scene, 
attending Hornsey College of Art in the 1960s. Starting on guitar, Toop 
displayed an interest in John Cage and Terry Riley but was also attracted to 
Ornette Coleman and Free Jazz. The early 1970s saw a blending of ideas, and 
Toop’s performances involved tape, ethnic music and electronics. He teamed up 
with instrument inventor Max Eastley but after the Eno recording went to 
Venezuela to record the curing ceremonies of the Yanomani Indians. His return 
to the UK saw him involved with the pop group The Flying Lizards in 1979 and 
then the reggae of Prince Far I. By the 1980s he was immersed in black Hip- 
Hop music, writing and a growing fondness for synthesizers and computer 
technology. Toop describes his exotic, often opaque Ambient music as ‘a 
mixture of live and sampled, the outdoor and indoor, hi- and low-tech. Of 
interesting contrasts.’ In 1994 came the second Eastley and Toop album, Buried 
Dreams (Beyond). The following year saw the publication of a highly perso- 
nalized look at Ambient music in the book Ocean Of Sound . Since then Toop 
has collaborated with the Virgin label on a series of Ambient compilations and 
released the albums Screen Ceremonies (1995), Pink Noir (1996) and Spirit World 
(1997). 




BOOK THREE 

AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


T HE ROCK ERA of the late 1950s to the 1990s was one of unprecedented 
sonic change. It was a revolution in popular music facilitated by 
transformations in both economics and technology. An upswing in 
the post-war economies of the West meant that by the 1960s young people had 
a degree of financial power. Through the exercise of this new freedom the 
records of The Beatles began to sell in huge quantities. Moreover technological 
advances in sound recording meant that rock music became a focus of 
innovation and experiment. In the studio multi-track recording afforded 
The Beatles the luxury of making state-of-the-art rock like 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s 
Lonely Hearts Club Band , which birthed the era of the concept album. The 
collision between expanding studio facilities and new guitar, keyboard and 
synthesizer equipment meant that rock releases such as a Jimi Hendrix or Byrds 
album had enormous social impact. As the industry grew, rock became more 
sophisticated and absorbed more influences from sources ranging from classical 
to World Music. Its evolution has fascinated generations of listeners, the 
perennial phrase ‘rock is dead’ usually undone by another startling release from 
a U2 or lesser-known band. What’s most interesting here is how rock opened 
listeners’ minds to new perceptions in sound; how through its necessary 
innovation it served as a perfect vehicle for new Ambient and electronic ideas. 

Our story begins with those people whose lives and work shaped the very 
history of the genre. Innovators like Americans Les Paul and Leo Fender, whose 
classic electric-guitar designs of the late 1 940s would define the sound of rock 
for decades. Both the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul had huge 
potentialities for sound manipulation, advantages that were exploited to the 
limit by rock musicians during the 1960s and 70s. Les Paul was also an early 
advocate of overdubbing and, like Stockhausen, used record discs for his early 
experiments in the 1940s. By the early 1950s he was multi-tracking vocals on 
tape and making hit records. In the UK producer Joe Meek was the first to use 
the studio itself as an instrument in recorded sound. Beginning in the 1950s, 
Meek’s maverick approach to taped music led to the first transatlantic number- 
one hit for an English rock group - ‘Telstar’ by The Tornados. 

Which brings us to The Beatles. Their contribution was a quantum leap in 
terms of sound and quality on almost everything that had come before them. By 
the late 1960s each of their albums had become an event, a benchmark example 
of what could be done inside a studio with the best technology and a group of 



180 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


musicians at the very apex of their creativity. Revolver (1966) was an incredible 
achievement - its mixture of tape effects, Indian raga, pocket symphony and 
sustained songcraft has frequently earned it the epithet ‘greatest album of all 
time’. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) inaugurated a new era of rock 
sophistication, its runaway sales defining a new youth-culture demographic. In 
the US others worked as hard as The Beatles to push rock forward. Bob Dylan 
brought the quality of a great novelist and poet to songwriting and allied it to a 
considered approach to record production. His mid-1960s work with the black 
producer Tom Wilson kick-started ‘folk-rock’ while later Dylan albums saw 
him pursue a more distilled Ambience in sound. The Beach Boys had a 
surrealistic quality to their music as envisioned by their chief songwriter and 
sound-shaper Brian Wilson. In a constant rivalry to keep up with The Beatles, 
Wilson spent the best part of 1966 crafting ‘Good Vibrations’ — a mini 
cornucopia of electronic and acoustic sounds. 

If Wilson used the singular droning sound of the Theremin to enhance 
‘Good Vibrations’, then Jimi Hendrix used everything he could lay his hands 
on to paint his colours in sound. Hendrix played the electric guitar like 
nobody before him or since. His Are You Experienced (1967) has never been 
bettered as a guitarist’s album in terms of vision and sheer sound experiment. 
Hendrix used the Fender Stratocaster like an electronic gizmo, constantly 
manipulating ideas in feedback, sustain, sound-swirl, octave displacement and 
much more to create the boldest tapestry of guitar sound in history. Even in 
the studio his use of effects such as backwards-tape editing matched that of 
The Beatles. By 1968’s Electric Ladyland his recording processes were akin to 
sound-painting. 

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are more often remembered for their beautiful 
folk-rock ballads than their technical savvy. Yet, like Hendrix, they were 
excited by new developments in musical technology. With their perfect 
harmonies, multi-tracked voices and endless overdubbing, courtesy of new 
eight-track recording equipment, their 1966 single ‘Scarborough Fair’ was a 
sonic miracle. By spending months and months in the studio and investigating 
the new possibilities of sixteen-track tape Simon & Garfunkel came up with 
Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1969, in the process heralding the era of High- 
Fidelity rock. 

Besides great leaps in technical know-how, other influences shaped the rock 
era. Ravi Shankar single-handedly introduced Indian music to the West. 
Constant touring and recording made him talk of the rock fraternity by the 
mid-1960s. Both The Byrds and The Beatles were directly influenced by him to 
expand their sense of melody and harmony. Shankar’s appearance at the 
Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was momentous. As noted earlier, Ravi Shankar 
influenced Philip Glass, in the same way that the Minimalist La Monte Young 
influenced The Velvet Underground. The latter experimented with drones and 
repetition in a new form of subversive rock documented by MGM in late 1960s 
recordings such as The Velvet Underground And Nico. Their New York base made 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


181 


for a more graphic, street- wise art which, in the hands of leaders John Cale and 
Lou Reed, resulted in an extreme form of electric music. 

Like The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones are often seen as rock 
rebels though in truth their interest in exotic sound design made them as 
progressive in outlook as The Beatles. During the late 1960s Brian Jones was 
using the Mellotron as well as a variety of ethnic instruments, including the sitar. 
In 1968 Jones made a location recording of Moroccan music which was then 
subjected to a phasing process by one of Jimi Hendrix’s engineers. At the same 
time Mick Jagger was toying with the very Moog synthesizer which would 
eventually define Tangerine Dream’s sound. The Stones’ work in the studio 
with producer Jimmy Miller would come into its own in the 1970s, their own 
Rolling Stones Mobile studio capturing some of the great rock albums of the 
decade. The early 1970s was also the era of the soul-baring singer songwriter. 
Van Morrison had laid out his vision of spiritual ecstasy on 1968’s Astral Weeks. 
His stream-of-consciousness style, coupled with lush Ambient settings, resulted 
in marvellously energetic works like Moondance. His huge canon of work 
provides some of the most stirringly profound emotional expression in rock. 
Marvin Gaye took soul music to new levels with his song cycle What's Going On 
(1971), an album so compelling that it induced Stevie Wonder to work with 
synthesizers. And then there was David Bowie, an artist whose space-age visions 
were bom as man landed on the moon and whose ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) was an 
electro-acoustic miracle. Bowie is as strongly associated with rock of the 1970s 
as The Beatles are with the 1960s. As he moved through the decade his love of 
change and radical innovation would peak in Berlin in 1977, when the master of 
the surreal compressed pop song met the diligent Brian Eno and they literally 
suspended time in sound. Low not only unfolded new vistas in synthesizer and 
Ambient music but also predicted the insistent beat of Techno years before it 
happened. 

The story continues with tendencies in rock which saw electronic and 
Ambient styles become more acceptable in mainstream consciousness. Psyche- 
delia was a dominant force in 1960s rock - the creation of music influenced by 
hallucinogenics such as LSD, mescaline and marijuana altered not only the way 
music was recorded but how it was listened to. In the UK, as Ian MacDonald has 
succinctly pointed out, psychedelia was all wrapped up in pastoral moods: ‘the 
nostalgic innocent vision of the child’. Most UK psychedelia concentrated on 
wigged-out guitar solos and strange arrangements on seven-inch singles. With 
exceptions, such as the albums of Pink Floyd and The Pretty Things, psyche- 
delia was seen as an interesting novelty. In contrast, American psychedelia was a 
frontier voyage, the album and the live concert the natural place to dive into a 
world of improvisation and on-the-spot inspiration. It blossomed on the West 
Coast, in the Californian sunshine of Los Angeles and San Francisco. LA’s 
mixture of glamour and showbiz lent the city’s psychedelic outpourings a 
certain whiff of decadence. The Byrds, whose masterly ‘Eight Miles High’ 
(1966) was a great blend of Indian raga and Rickenbacker guitar noise, were as 



182 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


interested in the trappings of success as they were in the workings of the Moog 
synthesizer. The Doors and Love were decadence on high, both creating visions 
of dread of a strange acidic potency. In the studio Arthur Lee’s ear for classical 
sound made Love’s Forever Changes a finely etched masterpiece while Ray 
Manzarek’s substantial keyboard ability pushed The Doors way beyond their 
blues roots. When Neil Young came to LA and joined Buffalo Springfield he 
found the perfect vehicle for his high-flown visions. Within both acoustic and 
electric contexts, Young was willing and able to push rock way beyond 
perceived boundaries. When he began making sound collages on Buffalo 
Springfield Again (1967) he showed that, for him, studio production was as 
important as content. The sheen of LA psychedelia was not replicated in San 
Francisco. Here the form was organic, communal and born out of a social and 
political imperative. The early music of Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful 
Dead was recorded intuitively, the feeling conveyed in sound more important 
than tweaky perfectionism. Yet the emotional, let-fly nature of San Francisco 
psychedelia did not exclude an interest in technology or experimental compo- 
sition. The Grateful Dead embraced eight- and sixteen-track facilities, blended 
live and studio music and were as interested in noise and feedback as much as 
melodically beautiful ensemble playing. Two albums from 1969, The Dead’s 
Live /Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails, epitomize true San 
Francisco psychedelia, where fluid instrumental music and Ambience conjoin in 
epic flights of electric fantasy. 

The natural tendencies of many musicians in the British Isles during the 1960s 
and 70s was to go in the direction of Folk Ambience. Traditional English, Irish 
and Scottish musics lent themselves to dronal and ornamental exploration. With 
electric instrumentation and new production techniques, British folk-rock 
blossomed. Donovan became an early star of the genre, assisted by producer 
Mickie Most. His interest in Eastern music and the presence of guitarist Jimmy 
Page made Sunshine Superman (1966) a wonderful listening experience. Also 
from Scotland was The Incredible String Band, a duo whose colourful 
compositions were grounded in medieval melody and Arabic and Eastern 
instrumentation. Their affinity with modal scales and timbral diversity made The 
Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) a truly ground-breaking album of original 
folk music. Fellow Scot Bert Jansch had made a name for himself in acoustic 
guitar circles with his open-tuned compositional style. His group Pentangle 
really pushed the idea of amplified acoustic music as being on a par with the best 
rock improvisation. Of course the crown for greatest-ever UK folk-rock band 
has to go to Fairport Convention. In 1969 three albums were released under 
their name which changed the UK scene for ever. With the captivating vocals of 
Sandy Denny and the encyclopedic musical knowledge of guitarist Richard 
Thompson, the band flew higher than most. Other significant contributions 
were made by Nick Drake and John Martyn, two musicians who prided 
themselves on their studio craft and their ability to make a great song become a 
vehicle for Ambient exploration. This all came to a head with the Irish group 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


183 


Clannad, who used the Prophet 5 synthesizer to conjure up a silky web of voices 
on the track ‘Theme From Harry’s Game’ (1983). 

Which neatly brings us back to the 1970s, the decade when rock evolved and 
built upon the pioneering work of the 1960s. For Clannad were influenced by 
lOcc, specifically the vocal ambience of the Manchester band’s UK and US 
mega-hit ‘I’m Not In Love’ in 1975. Written by Eric Stewart and Graham 
Gouldman, this memorably romantic song was electronic rock at its most 
delicious. Using a sixteen-track recorder in their own Strawberry Studios, lOcc 
painstakingly recorded single-note vocal harmonies which were then put on 
tape loops and blended through the mixing desk. Combined with Fender 
Rhodes piano and MiniMoog synth, this produced a sound that was a perfect 
meeting of emotion and technical brilliance. 

Like lOcc, Pink Floyd will always be identified with the 1970s. From the 
beginning they were seen as the last word in big experimental rock, and even 
their late-60s music with Syd Barrett was full of electronic sound effects. Yet it 
wasn’t until the 1970s that the world at large would see how far Pink Floyd 
could travel. Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) became the most famous deploy- 
ment of the EMS VCS3 synthesizer in history while Wish You Were Here (1975) 
still stands as a colossal achievement in Ambient rock — an album where ringing 
guitar, absolute silence, keyboards, synthesizers and studio magic all combine in 
one great glorious burst of sound. Compared to Pink Floyd, the work of so- 
called ‘progressive rockers’ Keith Emerson, King Crimson and Yes seems crude 
in retrospect, but it did have flashes of brilliance and fully embraced new musical 
hardware. Far better were the folk-inspired creations of Led Zeppelin and Mike 
Oldfield. Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was a master of studio technique, and his 
open-plan production ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was another highlight of early 70s 
rock. Mike Oldfield was proclaimed a rock saviour when his multi-instrumental 
studio-enhanced take on Minimalism, Tubular Bells (1973), sold millions. 

Another source of great electronic and Ambient music was German rock, or 
‘krautrock’ as it became known in the UK. The young musicians who sprang 
from cities such as Berlin, Cologne, Diisseldorf, Hamburg and Munich during 
the early 1970s had no interest in aping Anglo-American rock. Their German 
identity necessitated a reinvention and this was facilitated by radical approaches 
to recording and an emphasis on long instrumental tracks. Can, with their 
background in Stockhausen and jazz, were masters of ‘instant composition’ 
whereby long, improvised tracks were laid down in their self-built studios for 
later ‘editing’ by their technical boffin Holger Czukay. In fact Czukay con- 
tinued to work with tape and in the 1980s made successful solo albums as well as 
great Ambient collaborations with David Sylvian. The Hamburg-based com- 
munal formation Faust made an excellent collage album. The Faust Tapes 
(1973), while metronomic drumming and strange electronic sounds were the 
province of Diisseldorf ’s NEU!. Tangerine Dream emerged from Berlin as a trio 
of synthesizer experts whose thorough knowledge of the potential of electronic 
rock produced magnificent sound tapestries like Ruby con (1975) and Stratosfear 



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(1976). Their purposeful exploration of electronic rhythm would result in the 
invention of computer sequencing software. The spiritually enriched music of 
Munich’s Popol Vuh graced many a Werner Herzog soundtrack while Hans- 
Joachim Roedelius’s keyboard genius (inside and outside Cluster) was so 
thoroughly Ambient that Brian Eno proclaimed his music some of the best 
the 1970s had to offer. Many 70s German musicians would directly influence 
Techno music of the 1990s. Ash Ra Tempel’s guitarist Manuel Gottsching 
would become famous due to the 1994 remix of his hypnotic tour de force E2— 
E4. MiniMoog maestro Klaus Schulze became a firm collaborator in the 1990s 
with the Frankfurt Ambient star Pete Namlook. Yet the most influential 
German group of the 1970s was undoubtedly Kraftwerk, a Diisseldorf quartet 
whose slick modernistic creations defined an entire electronic sound world. A 
union of self-designed synthesizers and dmm machines with a perfectionist 
approach to recording resulted in such conceptual triumphs as Trans-Europe 
Express (1977) and The Man Machine (1978) — recordings that influenced David 
Bowie, US Hip-Hop and the entire history of Techno. 

Rock was so eclectic that it was fed and nourished by developments 
in synthesizer music. From the late 1960s to the early 1970s the likes of 
The Byrds, Mickjagger and Van Morrison all availed themselves of the skills of 
Beaver & Krause, two California-based Moog synth specialists. As the Moog 
was notoriously difficult to tune, Beaver & Krause were happy to contribute 
their know-how, even recording some good experimental albums along the 
way. In New York the duo Tonto’s Expanding Headband customized a series 
of Moogs and made such compelling electronica that they were hired by Stevie 
Wonder to help make a series of classic rocking-soul recordings like Innervisions 
(1973). Some rock musicians preferred to become synthesizer stars in their own 
right. Tim Blake transferred from the UK to France to become a touring sound- 
and-light sensation, an act made more impressive by his futuristic glam-rock 
image and virtuosity on keyboard and synth. Destined to outsell every other 
‘synthesist’ was France’s Jean Michel-Jarre, a serious avant-garde musician who 
was inspired by Pierre Schaeffer and Stockhausen to delve into the world of 
analogue synthesizers. The kinetic power of Oxygene (1977) was as convincing 
an argument as any that electronics could make very human music. Jarre 
enthusiastically embraced everything from computer music to huge urban laser- 
light displays, his high-profile endorsement of electronic music leading to a 
staggering sixty million album sales worldwide. 

If emotion was what was needed from keyboards and synths then Greek star 
Vangelis provided it in spades during the 1980s. One of the great exponents of 
the Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer, Vangelis became a star when he 
won an Oscar for the film theme to Chariots Of Fire (1981). His moving 
Ambient score for the film Blade Runner (1982) is a twentieth-century highlight. 

During the late 1970s a new rock force appeared which is best described as the 
Indie Wave. Independent, and mostly British, labels provided an outlet for music 
driven by the availability of cheaper and more compact electronic equipment. 



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Cabaret Voltaire, from Sheffield, were inspired by Stockhausen and Eno to make 
sound collages with tape machines and small synthesizers. Their interest in sensory 
overload due to new information technology led them to Chicago House and 
beyond into the pure datastream of Techno. In Manchester, Joy Division’s debut 
album, Unknown Pleasures (1979), not only spawned the legendary Factory 
Records label but also invented a form of isolationist rock where desolate synth 
and tape sounds were as important as the familiar drum, guitar and vocal timbres 
of old. As the group developed, their music became more ambiently ravishing, 
and the death of their singer Ian Curtis and a name-change to New Order did not 
halt the process. Their 1983 release ‘Blue Monday’, with its accelerated bass and 
dmm patterns, was one of the most celebrated twelve-inch dance records of all 
time. Factory was also home to Vini Reilly, who recorded under the name The 
Durutti Column. His singular classical-Ambient approach to rock guitar pro- 
duced a whole series of beautiful-sounding albums. In London the 4AD label 
attracted a series of fascinating musicians. When Colin Newman left the ironic 
‘new wave’ band Wire, he found a comfortable stable at 4 AD for which he 
recorded a number of Ambient-cum- experimental rock LPs in the early 1980s. 
The defining sound of 4AD came from the Scottish trio The Cocteau Twins, 
whose combination of treated guitars, keyboards, studio processing and the 
operatic voice of Elizabeth Fraser resulted in a sparkling, sheen-like music. Their 
emphasis was on total sound space, and albums like Treasure (1984) and Blue Bell 
Knoll (1988) were so individual that not even Fraser’s indecipherable vocalise 
detracted from their accomplishment. Other ‘indie’ groups opted for the route of 
an opaque insular sound universe. 

Americans Sonic Youth produced a blizzard of guitar noise and sound 
distortion on the exemplary Daydream Nation (1988) while Anglo-Irish group 
My Bloody Valentine blazed white-hot on the sound-morphing Loveless (1991). 
Indie rock Minimalism and man trie guitar drones were taken to their farthest 
limits by Sonic Boom and Jason Pierce in Spacemen 3. The Perfect Prescription 
(1987) celebrated John Cage, The Velvet Underground and psychedelia. By the 
late 1990s Pierce was creating hypnotic rock in Spiritualized while Sonic Boom 
delved into pure electronic music with Spectrum and EAR. 

Our survey of Ambience in the rock era concludes with those musicians 
whose contribution to the latter part of the twentieth century marks them out as 
true individualists. The Italian Ennio Morricone embraced the drama of rock 
recording to create some of the most memorable theme music of all time. Once 
heard, such soundtrack work as The Good , The Bad And The Ugly (1966) was not 
easily forgotten. Philadelphian rock star Todd Rundgren was one of the first to 
show that if a musician was able enough, new technology could allow him or her 
to do anything in the studio. His Something /Anything (1972) seemed to sum up 
the entire history of rock sound on one incredibly eclectic album. After Jimi 
Hendrix, Yorkshireman John McLaughlin was one of the few guitarists able to 
face down the instrument with a new musical vocabulary. His mixture of Indian 
music and jazz, along with his interest in guitar-synthesizers, computers and new 



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fusions, enriched rock for decades. The self-taught English guitarist Robert Fripp 
went way beyond the bounds of ‘progressive rock’ when he made some of the 
earliest Ambient records with Brian Eno. His constant interest in new sounds and 
a considered approach to the instmment made him a sought-after collaborator, 
his guitar Ambience on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ (1977) a pinnacle of under- 
statement. Like Fripp, Peter Gabriel emerged from UK ‘progressive rock’. Even 
in Genesis his interest in studio innovation led to the dry, compressed dmm 
sound which would dominate the 1980s. His slow, meticulously detailed 
approach to recording absorbed all available analogue and digital technology 
to produce So (1986) — an Ambient rock masterwork. Though a contemporary 
of Gabriel, guitarist Bill Nelson opted for capturing moods in short compositions 
which also used keyboards and synthetic percussion. His instmmental works, 
particularly those of the 1980s, had a Satiesque brilliance. 

American Laurie Anderson brought the sound of voice synthesis into millions 
of homes with her 1982 hit ‘O Superman’. Influenced by Philip Glass, Anderson 
became rock’s best-known performance artist and one of the world’s most 
inventive users of digital sampling technology. Influenced by Debussy, The 
Beatles and Steve Reich, the Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto made a 
valuable bridge between East and West in the 1980s. With his talents in film 
music, arranging and electronic sound, his work was a rock or pop equivalent to 
that of the Japanese composer Torn Takemitsu. Sakamoto worked extensively 
with the English pop star David Sylvian, whose debut solo album Brilliant Trees 
(1984) brought the experimental approaches of the likes of Minimalist Jon 
Hassell into full public view. Sylvian’s interest in Ambient music and instm- 
mental sound reached a rich outflowing with German Holger Czukay during 
the late 1980s. Around the same time the Canadian Michael Brook celebrated 
the success of his Infinite Guitar, a self-built instmment capable of infinite 
sustain. Brook attracted the interest of both Brian Eno and the Irish group U2 
for his atmospheric tone-coloured music. The latter’s chiming rock sound was 
full of Ambience courtesy of Brian Eno’s production and The Edge’s echoing, 
harmonically rich guitar style. U2 were fearless in the studio, and recordings 
such as The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991) were brilliant realizations 
of what could be achieved with synthesizers in rock. Some of their atmosphere 
they owed to the Canadian Daniel Lanois, who helped midwife the above two 
albums. Lanois produced Peter Gabriel and believed that studio recording 
should emphasize the environment as much as the music. After working with 
U2 he salvaged Bob Dylan’s career not once but twice, first in 1989 and then in 
1997 with the superlative Time Out Of Mind. By the last decade of the century it 
seemed that everything possible in electronic rock had been achieved. Then 
along came Enya with a new sound. Her speciality lay in creating myriad multi- 
tracks of her voice and blending its hushed choral properties with finely drawn 
synthesizer and keyboard lines. An album like Shepherd Moons (1991) was state- 
of-the-art electronic music which sacrificed not a jot of emotion. Enya’s 
worldwide multimillion album sales made her the first tme Ambient star. 



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INNOVATORS 

LEO FENDER 

In the rock era the single most important invention was undoubtedly the 
electric guitar. It transformed acoustic music into amplified sound capable of a 
wide degree of alteration and effect. The psychedelic era was all mostly guitar- 
led, the awesome achievements of Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck (who both 
endorsed the Fender guitar) ushering in the progressive rock era of the 1970s 
and the guitar Ambience of both Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Fender’s guitars 
continued to be a classic instrument of change for rock groups of the 1980s and 
90s. 

Leo Fender was bom in California in 1909 and by the 1940s was manu- 
facturing guitar amplifiers for a growing market. Friends and clients complained 
of constant distortion problems arising from amplifying an acoustic guitar. He 
designed a new pick-up. History states that a number of people, including Les 
Paul, arrived at the solution of the solid-bodied guitar at around the same time, 
but it was Fender’s prototype which became the electric guitar of the twentieth 
century. With its multiple pick-ups and unmistakably clear sound the Fender 
Broadcaster was invented in 1947 to go into mass production a year later. By 
1950 the guitar was so popular it name was changed to the more expansive- 
sounding Telecaster. 

In 1953 Fender put all his knowledge into the design of the Stratocaster, an 
amazingly versatile instrument which would become the ultimate guitar as 
deployed by Jimi Hendrix — with its simple volume and tone controls and its 
tremolo arm to increase sound effects off the fretboard. Fender worked on other 
instruments, including Precision Basses and Jazz guitars in the 1950s, but the 
Strat was his work of genius. Having founded the small Fender Electrical 
Instrument Company in 1946, he was prompted by illness to sell it to CBS in 
1965 for a staggering $13 million, a year before Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix 
showed the world the true potential of the Telecaster and Stratocaster. Over 
time Fender regained his health and continued to innovate through research, 
design and consultancy. He died in California in 1991, having revolutionized 
electronic guitar sound for ever. 


LES PAUL 

Although Les Paul is best known for his precision-built electric guitar, 
manufactured by Gibson in 1952, he was also a tremendous pioneer in the 
area of recording. During the 1940s he plunged into the world of tape 
manipulation, speeding up recordings to get strange effects. Moreover he 



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originated the concept of overdubbing instruments and multi-tracking the voice 
in popular music during the late 1940s. 

Les Paul was born in Wisconsin in 1915 and as a child was a music fanatic, 
playing a number of instruments. By the age of twelve he was playing guitar and 
recording with self-built apparatus. He was a local DJ and played guitar with 
country ensembles. By 1936 he was in New York, where he came under the 
influence of Django Reinhardt and hence saw a future in amplified jazz guitar. 
In 1940 he began to recognize the potential of a solid-bodied (as opposed to 
semi-acoustic) electric instrument. Though Gibson was wary of putting money 
behind Paul’s idea, the success of Fender guitars in the late 1940s made the 
company think again. As a result, the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar of the 50s 
became a classic instrument. 

The Les Paul was small but very strong. It had a number of pick-ups and acute 
tone, which made it very good for both rock and jazz. Its high quality of sustain 
made it a perfect foil for Jimmy Page when he made the guitar his very own 
during the heady days of Led Zeppelin between 1969 and 1975. Paul himself 
continued to play music after his great invention, and was known for his tasteful 
guitar work, recording with Nat King Cole in the late 1940s. Then living in Los 
Angeles, he married the singer Mary Ford in 1949 and in 1950 had a huge 
American hit with the country ballad ‘Tennessee Waltz’ (a version of which 
appeared in Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point). 

During the early 1950s Paul and Ford had a string of million-selling US hits 
on Capitol, all full of multi-tracked voice and other sounds achieved through 
Paul’s own home-made eight-track equipment. Paul’s sound being two decades 
ahead of its time, it was, ironically, doomed by the coming of no-nonsense rock 
’n’ roll in the late 1950s. In fact a parallel can be drawn between, on the one 
hand, his sophistication and the simplicity of early rock, and, on the other, the 
complexity oflate-1970s English ‘progressive’ music and the coming of punk 
rock. Though divorce in the 1960s and health problems in the 1970s set him 
back, Paul continued to work on new electronic components for his guitar. By 
the 1990s he was hailed as a genius, a favourite guest at music fests, often playing 
alongside Jeff Beck. 


JOE MEEK 

Joe Meek is certainly the most innovative producer to come out of England 
before The Beatles entered Abbey Road studios. He was the first to use the 
recording studio as an instrument, pre-dating Brian Eno’s ideas by fifteen years. 
He was the first to see that recording was in itself an electronic process to 
transform sound, not just to document it. He was also the first maverick 
technician, pushing primitive technology beyond its limits and leading the way 
for equipment manufacturers to follow musicians’ dreams and desires. 



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Meek was bom in Gloucestershire in 1929. Before he reached his teens he 
was dabbling in radio and television constmction. After being called to serve in 
the RAF, where he applied his talents to radar, he left to pursue sound 
experiments with tape machines and work as a radio and TV repair man in 
Gloucester. In 1950, long before Steve Reich and Brian Eno experimented with 
tape, Meek was already making important concrete-sound studies and collages 
using two primitive tape machines. 

After moving to London in 1954 he joined IBC studios, first as a junior then 
as senior engineer. There he began to experiment with microphone placement, 
live-studio mixing and sound distortion from the recording environment and 
the use of echo and compression on the resultant sounds themselves. A mixture 
of hostility and paranoia led to his resignation in 1957. He continued to work 
with jazzmen Acker Bilk and Chris Barber at Lansdowne Studios but soon tired 
and left to found his own Triumph record company at the beginning of the 
1960s. He even recorded a legendary LP, I Hear A New World , full of outer- and 
inner-space connotations, but, incredibly, the company foundered on its own 
success. Demand for Triumph’s hit singles simply outstripped its limited ability 
to supply. 

Still undaunted in his quest for independent prestige, Meek set up a 
production company called RGM Sound on the Holloway Road in North 
London. A live-music room and a recording room stuffed with primitive 
equipment was all he required. Here Meek put down backing instrumentals, 
then compressed and limited them to extremes before sending them out 
again to be played along to by the lead vocalist or instrumentalist. The 
parallel with Eno’s later experiments with Harold Budd in the 1980s is 
uncanny. A forest of cables and tape, Meek’s studio also employed the John 
Cage approach of preparing pianos with drawing pins and using unusual 
sound sources like industrial and garden springs for reverberation. As Daniel 
Lanois did later with U2, Meek would also place microphones all over the 
premises and use natural reverberation in bathrooms and in attics to enhance 
sound. 

In 1962 Meek scored his biggest hit record with the brilliant novelty ‘space’ 
single ‘Telstar’ by The Tornados. It was a number-one hit in the UK and the US 
and the first recording by a British beat combo to scale the top of the American 
charts. This futuristic instrumental is still selling today. By now everybody 
wanted to know Meek. Crooners like Tom Jones admired him, while guitarists 
like Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore (to become giants of 70s hard rock) 
were more than happy to record sessions with him. 

As he upgraded his studio in 1963 with new American limiting and reverb 
equipment, The Beatles arrived on the scene and Meek’s sound was swamped 
by the new rock ‘n’ roll music. A combination of declining business, manic 
depression, conflict over his homosexuality and sheer exhaustion led to his 
untimely death in 1967 from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Today an entire 
range of audio equipment is dedicated to Meek — equipment designed to apply 



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that other-worldly sound to work which may owe its very existence to Meek’s 
passionate vision. 

LISTENING 

I Hear A New World surfaced on an RPM CD in 1992 and by 1995/1996 
equipment builder Ted Fletcher had updated Meek’s optical control system and 
other circuitry to build a series of compressors and enhancers which gave new 
recordings the classic Meek sound of old. The Alchemist Of Pop: Homemade Hits 
and Rarities 1959—66 (Sequel/ Castle 2002) celebrates his innovations to a new 
generation. 


THE BEATLES 

The lasting impression left by The Beatles is one of overwhelming innovation 
resulting from unprecedented popularity. It is easy to forget that Lennon and 
McCartney had been working together for ten years before the landmark release 
of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967. Having spent nearly 2,000 
hours performing, the group had paid more than their dues by the Summer of 
Love. Moreover they always wanted to make it on their own terms, their leader, 
John Lennon, desiring more than the trappings of material success. So by 1966 
The Beatles were headily exploring the work of Cage and Stockhausen. Sgt. 
Pepper is a homage to these twentieth-century iconoclasts, its rich, tape- 
manipulated sound also owing something to Pierre Schaeffer. The fact that 
it is the best-selling album ever in the UK attests to the absorption of electronic- 
music ideas into mainstream rock and pop. 

All four Beatles were bom in Liverpool in the early 1940s and all were 
proudly working-class. Paul McCartney (whose father was a professional 
pianist) had serious tmmpet lessons as a child. John Lennon had his own group, 
The Quarrymen, which McCartney joined in 1957. Lennon immediately knew 
that the younger McCartney had a perfect understanding of harmony and pitch. 
George Harrison, for his part, was addicted to the guitar from the age of 
thirteen. Ringo Starr’s bass kicks and tom-tom fills were a perfect counterpoint 
to the chiming guitars and vocal lushness of The Beatles’ sound, one inspired by 
American soul, blues, country and, of course, rock ’n’ roll. 

It is said that The Beatles had played some 800 amphetamine-fuelled gigs in 
Hamburg and Liverpool before their fateful meeting with George Martin at 
EMI in 1962. Even so, they’d been turned down by four major labels and their 
sound was still rough. Martin was a visionary producer who would become the 
‘fifth Beatle’. Born in 1926, he had studied piano as a child, going on to pursue 
the gamut of classical-music studies at London’s Guildhall. A formidable 
orchestrator, oboist and pianist, he then worked for the BBC before joining 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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EMI. Made head producer at the EMI subsidiary label Parlophone when only 
twenty-eight, he was destined to meet The Beatles, and over the next eight 
years he would be their in-house sonic maestro — able to turn any idea, no 
matter how far-out, into gorgeously realized music. 

By 1963 Beatlemania had taken hold of Britain, driven by such songs as the 
repetitively delicious ‘She Loves You’. Their first album had been recorded on 
two-track tape machines, virtually live, in ten hours! Their second LP, also recorded 
in 1963, saw the introduction of four-track equipment at Martin’s insistence. Vocals 
could be easily doubled and separated from the other instmmental colours, which 
were expanded to include Spanish guitar, African percussion and bongo dmms. 
Even though the group were singing infectious pop singles like ‘I Want To Hold 
Your Hand’, their studio techniques were already evolving. 

In 1964 they hit America but, bar the hysteria, their most important 
encounter was with Bob Dylan in a Manhattan hotel room, where they 
smoked marijuana for the first time. Their hectic schedule left them little time 
to digest the experience, but their sound began to subtly alter — now 
incorporating twelve-string guitars and guitar feedback. Inspired by Dylan, 
they also began writing all their own material as exemplified on that year’s A 
Hard Day’s Night. More importantly, they began to stretch out recording 
sessions, spending time between February and June 1965 putting down Help!. 
This time the four-track Abbey Road equipment was used to layer instruments, 
Harrison for his part using volume-pedal and more intricate chordal devices to 
enrich his guitar sound. Two songs on Help! stood out. Lennon’s ‘You’ve Got 
To Hide Your Love Away’ was an acoustic folk charmer which included 
maracas, tambourine and ornate flutes. McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’ was pure 
inspiration, a classical melody and harmony creation improved by Martin’s 
string- quartet arrangement. It was a turning-point, and from then on The 
Beatles’ music would embrace complexity as a matter of course. 

The group were still touring in Europe and the US, but after the Shea 
Stadium concert in late summer of 1965 they had their second important drug 
experience. They met David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds at a 
house in Los Angeles, where, aided by LSD, Lennon and Harrison were struck 
by the Indian cadences produced by Crosby’s twelve-string guitar. The Indian 
sitarist Ravi Shankar was mentioned and The Byrds were only months away 
from creating the epic raga-rock of ‘Eight Miles High’. Back in London that 
autumn, The Beatles laid down a track directly inspired by this meeting, 
‘Norwegian Wood’, full of Harrison’s double-tracked sitar. 

This would be the stand-out song on Rubber Soul (1965), the first great 
Beatles album. Recorded in a matter of a month, the album was the first Beatles 
record which was noticeably drug-influenced. Introspective, moody and at 
times bitter, it was famous for its warped group photo and Pop art title. It was 
full of great sounds — sitar, bouzouki, harmonium, Byrdsy twelve-string 
Rickenbacker guitars, bright ethnic percussion and filtered vocals. The antique 
sound of the acoustic guitars on ‘Norwegian Wood’ was full of drones, 



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Lennon’s lyric about a one-night stand very 1960s. The album is famous for 
Martin’s half-speed piano fill on ‘In My Life’, a classical touch which in 
retrospect sounds contrived. In my opinion the greatest song on Rubber Soul 
was ‘Nowhere Man’, which burst forth with all the gusto of newly discovered 
psychedelia. Lennon’s cheesy vocal luxuriates in an opiated haze of production 
and Harrison’s Fender Stratocaster solo fuzzes with all the right hallucinatory 
sparkle. No wonder it was used again on the soundtrack to the psychedelic 
cartoon fantasy Yellow Submarine (1968). 

Yet this was only a promise, for the greatest album in The Beatles’ canon was 
yet to come. Fully confident that the sounds and visions of mind-expanding 
drugs led to a deeper musical fountain, the group experimented liberally with 
tape recorders in their own home studios. The aim was to catch these feelings 
and observations in music, and with Revolver The Beatles rose to the occasion 
like no other group before them. At times saturated in drugs, the mood of 
Revolver nevertheless captured everything the group was about — jollity, great 
rock music, peaking innovation, masterful songwriting and new studio tech- 
niques. The album’s vibe opened up millions to the potential of psychedelic 
music, the exotic finales of some songs promising a whole universe of sonic 
dreams. The recording sessions at Abbey Road, which took place in the spring 
and summer of 1966, began with the most portentous psychedelic song ever 
written. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was Lennon’s interpretation of LSD guru 
Timothy Leary’s mantra ‘Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream’. 
Over Starr’s repetitive, effects-laden tom-toms, Lennon recited this mantra to a 
kaleidoscope of electronically treated sounds. Five tape loops were spun into a 
mix full of Mellotron flute, treated sitar, backwards guitar and organ drones. 
Every signal was vari-speeded, compressed or echoed. Lennon’s voice was 
altered by putting it through an artificial double-tracked tape process, and in the 
course of this procedure the term ‘flanging’ was bom. His voice was rarefied 
even further by directing it through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet. 

If listening to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was like taking a trip, hearing 
Lennon’s acid-drenched ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ left one in no doubt as to where its 
author was coming from. Again the sound of this aural delight evoked the 
dmgged state of its writer. The trebly tone of the acoustic guitars was a perfect foil 
to Lennon’s languid tone, in what was possibly the world’s first ‘chill-out’ pop 
song. Harrison’s backwards guitars seemed to have an intended hypnotic quality, 
and the conclusion of the song all the flavour of an electronic raga. Brilliantly this 
led into Harrison’s own authentically Indian-sounding ‘Love You To’, whose 
tabla and sitar improvisation in the finale was gloriously uplifting. The devotional 
ending of Harrison’s ‘I Want To Tell You’ was equally optimistic, while ‘Good 
Day Sunshine’ had a raga-like edge to its mirrored vocal climax. Revolver was an 
album of superb timbral variety — French hom, strings, clavichord and so on, its 
series of flawless sound constmctions nowhere better heard than on McCartney’s 
classically perfect creation ‘For No One’. 

Amazingly, Lennon, ever the adventurer, wasn’t satisfied. Working in 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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Weybridge, near London, on his Mellotron, he wanted to make an even better 
sound collage than ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. At Abbey Road over eight days 
in the winter of 1966, he pushed the group into recording an open-ended 
modal creation titled ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Featuring backwards cymbals, 
cascading Indian harp, riveting Harrison guitar solos, timpani, bongos, trumpets 
and cellos, this was the lushest music The Beatles had recorded up to then. The 
song was also recorded using two four-track machines, the final take being a 
splice of a rock version and an orchestral version. From its weird Mellotron 
opening to its fake drum forward reprise where John’s voice could be heard 
saying, ‘Cranberry sauce’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ inaugurated 1967 like no 
other song on earth. 

Just before its release McCartney spent five hours at Abbey Road recording 
his psychedelic improvisation ‘Carnival Of Light’, a work of fourteen minutes 
full of the results of tape-editing experiments in his London home. Never 
released, it nevertheless shows that both Lennon and McCartney were coming 
under the influence of experimental composers, particularly Cage and Stock- 
hausen. Recorded in the first four months of 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts 
Club Band would bring all these interests into accessible focus. In essence the 
album was less psychedelic than its predecessor; its sounds were totally upfront, 
leaving little to the imagination. Achieved by wiring two four-track tape 
machines together, the deep stereophonic sound of Sgt. Pepper was the best 
audio rock result of its times. The album’s majestic red cover was a veritable 
gallery of the famous and inspired, including Aldous Huxley, Edgar Allan Poe, 
Stockhausen, Dylan and Oscar Wilde. In truth, Sgt. Pepper was psychedelia for 
the masses, a pop-sensitive pot-pourri of mixed-up studio effects which caught 
the public imagination like no album before it or since. 

Sgt. Pepper is soaked with all the echo, vari-speed tape, compression and 
artificial double-tracking gimmicks of The Beatles’ 1966 sessions, but a lot of the 
songs don’t sound that good on close listening. ‘Fixing A Hole’ begins with a 
lovely harpsichord and has McCartney dreaming away, but the rough guitar and 
ordinary rock instrumentation let it down in the end. Some of the squealier 
guitar tones on the album (courtesy of McCartney) were inspired by Jimi 
Hendrix. There are, though, three outstanding cuts on Sgt. Pepper. ‘A Day In 
The Life’, which began the sessions and finished the album, was masterly. A 
mixture of two different songs by Lennon and McCartney, the track was 
characterized by its stoned vocals and Cage-like string directives, which had 
forty players from the Royal and London Philharmonics sliding up the scale 
until the piece ends with the climax of twelve pianos ringing on one Ambient 
chord for nearly a minute. More Ambient was Lennon’s incredible ‘Lucy In The 
Sky With Diamonds’ a gossamer-like evocation of childlike psychedelia. Like 
Jefferson Airplane in ‘White Rabbit’, Lennon quoted Alice In Wonderland to 
McCartney’s echoed and vari-speeded Lowry organ. But if the drift of 
psychedelia was what you wanted, its luxuriant Ambience was best summed 
up by Harrison’s ‘Within You Without You’ - the product of nearly a year’s 



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study with Ravi Shankar. The song’s Hinduistic lyric was framed by beautiful 
strings and a variety of other Indian lutes, harp and tamburas. Its main feature 
was a wobbling tabla and sitar. This and its purity of tone led one to believe it 
had a Northern Indian quality. Yet the use of strings (playing Indian scales) had 
its roots in the Southern Carnatic tradition. Whatever was in Harrison’s mind, 
he brought in Asian musicians to play the parts, creating the most timeless piece 
of dronal psychedelia ever recorded. 

Having left live performance behind (the last tour ending in California in the 
summer of 1966), The Beatles continued to be preoccupied with studio 
experiments. Inspired by author Ken Kesey and his cross-country bus journey 
with his Merry Pranksters, McCartney dreamed up Magical Mystery Tour , a 
filmed psychedelic odyssey. Some of the music taped in the autumn of 1967 was 
inspired. Lennon’s 4 1 Am The Walrus’ was gushingly hallucinogenic and used 
Stockhausen-like random radio samples. An instrumental take, ‘Flying’, in- 
cluded Lennon getting Indian flute sounds from a Mellotron. Harrison used 
more backwards editing and other tape effects on the dreamlike ‘Blue Jay Way’, 
a song which seemed to arise out of his interest in transcendental meditation. In 
fact in early 1968 Harrison was in Bombay recording Indian music for a film. 
Out of this came the raga ‘The Inner Light’, another beautiful Indian composi- 
tion, released as a single. Soon after that Lennon recorded the mantra-full 
‘Across The Universe’, a veritable acoustic dream song, and then the whole 
group journeyed to India to meditate with their guru the Maharishi Mahesh 
Yogi. 

That year, 1968, saw The Beatles embrace many other musics through their 
Apple label, including those of the spiritual Minimalist John Tavener and Ravi 
Shankar himself. In India they wrote and wrote and came back to London to 
record The Beatles, better known as ‘The White Album’, in the summer and 
autumn. Thirty songs made up this double album, of which Lennon’s eight- 
minute twenty-second ‘Revolution 9’ was the most important. Here Lennon 
effectively paid his respects to Stockhausen, whose Hymnen of 1966—7 embraced 
forty national anthems. Tape loops, record snippets, radio edits, Mellotron, 
backwards tape, echo delay, bits of Sgt. Pepper and lots of voice samples and 
dialogue built up a picture of repetitive chaos. A voice repeatedly intoning the 
words ‘number nine’ gave the track its Minimalist edge. It’s worth noting that 
Lennon had just met Yoko Ono, who’d worked with the American Minimalist 
composer La Monte Young in New York. Lennon, Ono and Harrison spent 
days preparing the tapes, the result only coming together over a further two days 
of mixing in the summer of 1968. This time was the peak of The Beatles’ 
interest in Stockhausen’s electronic composition, Cage’s chance music and 
Schaeffer’s concrete music. Stockhausen himself commented in 1980 that at that 
time: ‘Lennon often used to phone me. He was particularly fond of my Hymnen 
and Song Of The Youths and got many things from them.’ The stylistic similarity 
between the 1956 work Gesang der Jiinglinge ( Song Of The Youths) and 
‘Revolution 9’ was uncanny. 



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Another song on ‘The White Album’, Harrison’s haunting ballad Tong Long 
Long’, was noteworthy for its Ambient production. Yet tensions were running 
high and time was running out for The Beatles. Ringo had briefly given up on 
the group during the 1968 sessions. Harrison would walk out during the filming 
of their next ‘live studio’ project, provisionally called Get Back but to become 
Let It Be in 1970. Then marital and financial arguments clouded the first part of 
1969. Nevertheless Harrison’s new-found interest in synthetic sound would 
shape their last masterpiece, Abbey Road. He had purchased a Moog synthesizer 
on the advice of the electronic duo Beaver & Krause at the end of 1968 and it 
was used on the new album. (Krause also helped Harrison record an album of 
Moog doodles, Electronic Sounds , which saw the light of day on the Zapple label 
in the spring of 1969.) 

Recorded on new eight-track equipment, Abbey Road was destined to be The 
Beatles’ best-sounding record. Moreover a lot of the songs repeated melodic 
lines, parts of the album forming fantastic song and sound suites which still have 
wondrous effect. The record opened with Lennon’s call to Timothy Leary, 
‘Come Together’, with its fine electric piano and tape-manipulated drum 
sound. Lennon’s awesome ‘I Want You’ was constructed in an endless series of 
takes and overdubs, its character Minimalist in its repetition, ambitious in its 
changes of metre, coolly elegant in its jazzy instrumental break and overtly 
experimental in its Moog ‘white noise’ finale, which simply cut off. The Moog 
was again heard on ‘Because’, a tune which magically begins with George 
Martin repeating the melodic motif of ‘I Want You’ on electric harpsichord, 
and continues into a sound world of massed vocal harmony and quirky synth 
timbres reminiscent of Wendy Carlos. Its understated opening was then 
mirrored by McCartney’s soft piano entry on ‘You Never Give Me Your 
Money’, which ends with his guitars repeating Lennon’s lead guitar on ‘I Want 
You’. This merged with wind chimes and looped cricket noises to open up the 
Mayan trance of ‘Sun King’. Later in the record ‘Golden Slumbers’ also opened 
with McCartney’s understated piano before leading into ‘Carry That Weight’, 
which featured backing from a thirty-strong orchestra. This reprised in brass the 
melody of ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and concluded again with the 
descending line of ‘I Want You’. 

As an example of cyclical ideas in pop and rock Abbey Road was a masterpiece. 
Released in the autumn of 1969, it was a fitting swansong to nearly a decade of 
innovation. (The Beatles were never happy with the Phil Spector post- 
produced Let It Be, which appeared in the summer of 1970.) In terms of 
production the group had greatly expanded the studio’s technical possibilities. 
Many followed their lead. In terms of sound The Beatles had opened millions of 
listeners’ ears to the world of electronic composition. Harrison’s interest in 
Indian classical music had brought ethnic music into homes the world over. 
Through the medium of rock and pop The Beatles achieved a position so 
rarefied that innovation was their only true outlet. Their courage in the studio 
irrevocably changed the course of twentieth-century music. 



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LISTENING 

All The Beatles’ recordings mentioned above are essential listening. All bear the 
Apple and Parlophone logos and are credited to EMI in the UK. In the US 
Capitol issued The Beatles’ records and veered from British custom by including 
singles on albums. Thus Magical Mystery Tour (1967) came out as an album in 
America but as a double EP in the UK. With its lovely Ambient piano fade on 
the title track, Magical Mystery Tour included ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘I Am 
The Walrus’, ‘Flying’, ‘Blue Jay Way’ and ‘Baby, You’re A Rich Man’, among 
other nuggets, thus making it the most psychedelic album The Beatles ever 
released. Issued in the UK in 1976, it is an essential purchase, as is Revolver 
(1966), and is my favourite Beatles album. After Lennon’s death, George Martin 
and the remaining Beatles compiled a series of out-take albums, The Beatles 
Anthology 1—3 (1995—6). Credited to Apple Corps Ltd, the series was a great 
glimpse into the working methods of the group, throwing up many unissued 
takes and tracks. The second and third albums of The Beatles Anthology , which 
detail sessions from Help! to Abbey Road, are especially interesting. 


BOB DYLAN 

When Bob Dylan began putting his own stamp on American folk music in 
the early 1960s he blueprinted the future of rock. His was the gift of 
storytelling allied to sound fidelity. What Dylan did best was to crystallize 
his outstanding vision in excellent records. When he ‘went electric’ in 1965 
he harnessed an earnest conscience to the new power of rock music. With his 
able black producer Tom Wilson, Dylan would bequeath a licence to express 
to hundreds of American musicians, including The Mamas & The Papas, The 
Byrds, Tim Buckley and Simon & Garfunkel. Jimi Hendrix consistently 
honoured his debt to Dylan throughout his brief but highly influential career. 
The Velvet Underground were stimulated by Dylan’s presence as well as 
being produced by his studio wizard Tom Wilson. Dylan’s impact on the 
British Isles was enormous, inspiring the work of many, including The 
Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Clannad. Over time it 
became clear that Dylan was a genius at capturing mood in the studio; so 
adept was he that he attracted the attention of the Canadian ‘sonic sorcerer’ 
Daniel Lanois, who produced some excellent atmospheric recordings for 
Dylan in the 1980s and 90s. 

At the beginning of his career the Minnesota kid had a very ‘hit and run’ 
attitude to recording. In 1961 Dylan’s first Columbia album was dispatched in 
two days at the label’s New York studios. He and Tom Wilson got through 
some of his finest songs, such as ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ and ‘My Back Pages’, in 
one intense session for Another Side Of Bob Dylan in 1964. It was on the 



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following year’s Bringing It All Back Home that Wilson began to reveal to Dylan 
the secrets of tape overdubbing in an album which mixed rock and folk 
instrumentation, and one which took longer to record. Wilson achieved his best 
recording on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, where Dylan played piano, guitar and 
harmonica to A1 Kooper’s organ and Mike Bloomfield’s guitar. As Wilson had 
accepted an offer from Verve, staff producer Bob Johnston produced the rest of 
what became known as Highway 61 Revisited (1965). Did his country roots affect 
Dylan’s trajectory? From listening to this famous album, it’s not obvious, but 
subsequently Dylan did record a lot of material in Nashville. 

LSD was more of an influence. Certainly the undulating flow of ‘Desolation 
Row’ had the quality of druggy reverie. This beautiful piece clocked in at 
eleven and a half minutes and was reputedly the product of six weeks’ 
consideration. Yet amid all the furore over Dylan going electric ‘Desolation 
Row’ was acoustic Ambience of a very special quality. He had mastered a 
technique of distorting time by putting a harmonica break at a judicious point in 
the song’s flow and then, instead of ending it there, going back to yet more 
verses to build up the tension all over again. Dylan would repeat this device on 
his 1966 album Blonde On Blonde (the first double album of self-penned rock 
songs) when he devoted a whole side to the curling love song ‘Sad Eyed Lady 
Of The Lowlands’ — a number which took him a full seven hours of Nashville 
Studio time to record. 

After his ‘motorbike accident’ in July 1966 Dylan returned to basics with the 
two-day Bob Johnston-produced John Wesley Harding (1968), a recording which 
stimulated Jimi Hendrix into recording its tracks ‘All Along The Watchtower’ 
and ‘The Drifter’s Escape’. Put down in Nashville with seasoned session 
musicians, it was a strange record to fire rock’s premier guitarist. 

A trip to Mexico in early 1973 to film Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy 
The Kid produced Dylan’s finest instrumental flourish. The twin challenge of 
acting and doing the soundtrack took Dylan out of his usual environment. His 
instrumentals were later multi-tracked in California with added cellos, flute, 
harmonium and fiddle. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds also appeared. The result 
was a lovely lilting acoustic soundtrack album which included the angelic 
‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’. 

Dylan’s ability to capture the mood never left him. Blood On The Tracks 
(1974) was in places utterly poignant. Desire (1976) had a wonderfully thick 
overdubbed sound deriving from sixteen-track. Though the album was both 
written and recorded in New York, Scarlet Rivera’s gypsy violin and an 
assortment of mandolin, trumpet, harmony vocals and multiple guitars gave 
Desire the exotic air of having been recorded South of the Border. Infidels (1983) 
drew on the reggae talents of Sly and Robbie. Dylan produced his share of poor 
records, but the powerful Oh Mercy (1989) and Time Out Of Mind (1997), 
recorded in New Orleans and Miami respectively, benefited from the magical 
production of Daniel Lanois. Says the French Canadian, who has also produced 
U2: ‘It’s all about putting care into the organization of the music. Bob’s a very 



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good guitar player and a good piano player. He can support himself so well 
when he plays in the studio.’ 

LISTENING 

Except for a brief period in the early 1970s, Dylan has been one of Columbia’s 
longest serving artists. All the records noted are worth hearing. For those 
looking for the twittering insects and swampy guitars of the Deep South, Daniel 
Lanois’ production on Oh Mercy is superb. Equally atmospheric is his work on 
Time Out Of Mind, which includes the mind-stretchingly Ambient sixteen and a 
half minutes of ‘Highlands’. 


THE BEACH BOYS 

With their barbershop close harmonies, blond image and string of early- 1960s 
hits about sea, surf and girls, The Beach Boys epitomized the Californian fantasy 
of white America. It seemed fitting that on his debut album of 1966 Jimi 
Hendrix should say, ‘May you never hear surf-music again’, so alien was The 
Beach Boys’ sweet music to his exalted vision of psychedelia. In truth, the 
group’s image was a manufactured one based on the insular genius of Brian 
Wilson, their songwriter. Wilson had started ingesting LSD as early as mid- 
1965. When this produced mini-symphonies on Pet Sounds (1966) and the 
incredible song ‘Good Vibrations’ - an inspired piece of linear production 
where organ, Fender bass, bongos, piccolo, cellos and the swooshing sound of 
the Theremin were poured on to tape and mixed through echo-chamber then 
topped off with repeating vocals — Wilson duly earned his place as one of the 
great sound-shapers of the century, influencing The Beatles and the whole 
production of rock and pop from then on. 

Although Wilson’s growing paranoia, insecurity and drug use made him a 
virtual recluse until rehabilitation in the 1990s, this sad history has not affected 
his standing. Today he is still considered ‘a shy genius’, whose unreleased 
unfinished 1967 mega-opus Smile (of which ‘Good Vibrations’ formed a part) is 
spoken about in the same hushed tones as Sgt. Pepper. In fact the baroque sound 
of a treated organ, first heard on Pet Sounds and then during the Smile sessions, 
resurfaced on The Beatles’ ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. Certainly Paul 
McCartney was a visitor to Wilson’s Los Angeles studio during that time. And it 
was the recording innovations of first Phil Spector, and then The Beatles in the 
pop and rock field, that spurred Wilson on to even greater heights. 

Wilson was bom in 1942, in the Hawthorne district of Los Angeles, to a 
petit-bourgeois family. He studied music at school but was introverted, 
awkward and dominated by his ogre father, Murry Wilson. Even so, by his 
late teens he had formed a close-harmony group with his brothers, a cousin and 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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a neighbour. The Beach Boys’ mix of rock ’n’ roll, surf guitar and harmony 
heaven got them signed to the Capitol label in 1962, for which they recorded 
‘Surfin’ USA’ the following year. Wilson admired Phil Spector’s ‘wall-of- 
sound’ vertical recording techniques, which massed instruments and voices on 
top of one another. Away from Capitol’s in-house producers, he spent more 
time at Western Studios twiddling knobs. Endless hot-house recording sessions 
and tours drained Wilson, and after breaking down on a flight at the end of 1964 
he withdrew from the world, unwilling to play his own music live. An LSD trip 
in the summer of 1965 laid out his whole life in front of him and he claimed to 
have seen visions of God. When The Beatles’ Rubber Soul came out in 
December 1965, Wilson wanted to make ‘feeling music’. 

With the other Beach Boys on tour in Japan and unwilling to go along with 
Wilson’s mental trip, the twenty-two-year-old employed advertising tunesmith 
Tony Asher to co-write the songs for Pet Sounds. What they came up with has 
been described as one of the great pop albums of all time. The minimal 
involvement of the rest of the group in Pet Sounds has led many to see it as a 
Brian Wilson solo recording. Wilson achieved ‘an airy spaciousness’ on the 
album, an ethereal compression where strange percussion, sleigh bells, water 
bottles, harpsichord and a myriad of other sounds were used. A melancholic 
alienation runs through ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These 
Times’, the latter including Wilson’s first use of the Theremin. On the 
instrumental ‘Let s Go Away For Awhile’ Wilson multi-layered twelve violins, 
piano, four saxophones, oboe, vibes, basses and guitar to come up with a 
fabulously dreamy piece of high-quality muzak. Even today it’s hard to believe 
the whole thing was recorded in mono. 

Paul McCartney was justified when he said that Wilson’s songs like the 
breathtaking harpsichord-punctuated ‘Caroline No’ was his favourite music of 
all time. Recorded at the beginning of 1966, Pet Sounds was not surfing music 
and did better in the UK than in the US. From February to September of that 
year Wilson laboured at various LA studios on ‘Good Vibrations’ in fits and 
starts. The resultant three-and-a-half-minute single, released in October 1966, 
changed the course of rock and popular music. Wilson’s layering process on Pet 
Sounds gave way to an almost classical arrangement of sounds and melody which 
evolved through the listening experience. This was sound-painting of the 
highest order, owing much to the inspired use of the trembly Theremin and 
marvellously echoed vocal harmonies. 

As ‘Good Vibrations’ topped the charts and sold in the millions all over the 
world, Wilson desired to extend the use of the studio as instrument. Harnessing 
the songwriting talents of the classically trained Mississippi musician Van Dyke 
Parks, he wanted to create ‘the next step in the evolution of record production’. 
Wilson had his own ‘crew’ of session musicians and invited guests such as the 
veteran jazz guitarist Barney Kessell to help out. For the ambitious ‘Elements 
Suite’ he even made Ambient tape loops of rain, wind and sea for authenticity . 
Tirelessly recording and re-recording, arriving in studios like Goldstar at all 



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times of the morning and taking copious amounts of speed and marijuana made 
Wilson unhinged. Several deadlines for a new LP, titled Smile , came and went, 
but when a demented and paranoid Wilson threatened to burn the master tapes, 
all was lost. The album was cancelled in May 1967, and after Sgt. Pepper came 
out a few weeks later Wilson withdrew into himself. What can be heard today 
displays Wilson as a pop Mozart with an uncanny feel for soft, delicate, Ambient 
arranging. ‘Wind Chimes’, ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Cool Cool Water’ are delicate 
watercolours in sound. But the cream is the masterly song ‘Surfs Up’, a mystical 
paean to childhood and God, picked out on piano, which begins in a minor 
chord with subtle trumpets, bass and bells and ends as a lullaby. Ironically, it’s as 
far from the original surf music as Wilson could get. 

LISTENING 

Capitol’s remastered and extensively annotated Pet Sounds (1990) is a great release. 
In 1998 the label also issued a three-disc boxed set of the entire Pet Sounds 
recording sessions. Having abandoned Smile , Capitol released the compromised 
Smiley Smile album in September 1967 and this surfaced again, on disc, in 1990. 
Though The Beach Boys’ versions of tracks from Smile aren’t a patch on Brian’s 
originals, this disc contains various sessions and takes of ‘Good Vibrations’ which 
open up Wilson’s creative process in the studio. Original takes of Smile have 
always been available on bootleg discs replete with the original cover, the best 
being an Australian double pack on Vigo (1993). Surf's Up retained its brilliance 
when it was finally released by The Beach Boys in 1971. 


JIMI HENDRIX 

The pre-eminent guitarist of the twentieth century achieved his lofty position 
by treating the guitar not as an instrument with strings but as an electronic magic 
box. Fuelled by an infinite musical imagination, Jimi Hendrix used every 
electrical device he could lay his hands on to amplify the Technicolor sounds he 
heard in his imagination. The trilling guitar sound of this musical visionary of 
bottomless resources became the psychedelic soundtrack of the 1960s. His death 
at only twenty-seven, when his ambitions were pushing his work towards a 
grand fusion of classical music, jazz and rock, robbed the world of a tme 
innovator. 

Much has been written about the life of Hendrix, one so full of event that it 
often threatened to overshadow the very music that he lived for. Y et, amid the 
endless stories of his Swinging 60s lifestyle, lies a body of work that awed such 
talents as Miles Davis and Brian Eno and was respected by each and every 
successive generation of musicians, including those from House and Techno 
persuasions. Why was Hendrix so important? The answer lies in the music itself. 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942. He was an African American but with a 
mixture of Irish and Cherokee Indian in his blood. His upbringing was unstable, 
though he spent some valued time on an Indian reservation with his grand- 
mother. His first encounter with music was Gospel but at thirteen he acquired a 
cheap guitar. Over the years he taught himself how to play, mimicking rock and 
blues standards he heard on the radio. He played in school bands but in 1961 
joined the parachute division of the US Air Force. Stationed in Kentucky, he 
slept with his guitar, which he wanted to make sound like the wind. There he 
met another musician, bassist Billy Cox. He played the blues, learning much 
from the Chicago veteran Muddy Waters. So desperate was Hendrix to play 
that after he was discharged from the Air Force he ended up as a sideman to the 
black stars of the day such as Little Richard and B.B. King. In 1964 he went to 
New York and played with the Isley Brothers. That year he also bought his first 
Fender Stratocaster, the instrument he would make famous. Being a left-hander, 
Hendrix held the guitar upside down, with the electronic controls nearest him. 
Hence his hand would naturally touch the volume and tone knobs, the pick-up 
switch and most famously the tremolo arm, which was used to give a variety of 
effects, from quickly trembling notes to controlled feedback. Of course, this 
expertise came with practice. 

By 1966, having honed an outrageous stage act which included playing the 
guitar in every conceivable position, even with his teeth, Hendrix became the 
toast of New York. Spotted by a girlfriend of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, he 
was brought to London, where he became an instant star. That winter he met a 
young Royal Naval acoustics expert named Roger Mayer who had been 
interested in avant-garde electronics since the early 1960s. He gave Hendrix a 
self-built Octavia unit which boosted the guitar’s octaves, giving a harmonic 
mirroring effect. This was used to singular effect on Hendrix’s breakthrough 
single of 1967, ‘Purple Haze’. Mayer provided a variety of similar distorting, 
touch-sensitive guitar devices, which Hendrix used right up until his death in 
1970. 

Though he was immediately lionized by the cream of London’s rockocracy, 
including The Beatles, Hendrix’s own interest lay in the studio. During the 
winter of 1966 he tried various venues but it wasn’t until early the following 
year, at Olympic Studios, that he met Eddie Kramer, an engineer who was open 
and willing to transform Hendrix’s ambitions into realistic sound. Kramer’s 
approach was to get as much as possible out of four-track tape recorders. Two 
tracks were used for Mitch Mitchell’s jazzy multi-roll drumming with its big 
bass kick, one track for Hendrix’s rhythm guitar and another for the bass. These 
would then be mixed down to two tracks, leaving two open for Hendrix’s vocal 
and lead guitar overdubs. The sound thus generated was big and crystal-clear. 

Hendrix and his manager, Chas Chandler, also took the then unorthodox 
route of paying for the recording sessions themselves, allowing more time in the 
studio to perfect the music. They worked intensively on Hendrix’s first album, 
Are You Experienced (Track 1967). ‘May This Be Love’ (also known as ‘Water- 



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fall’) had a rhythm and sensibility derived from American Indian culture. Its 
crystalline guitar sound was multi-imaged by means of backwards guitar and 
stereo panning from one channel to another. Hendrix seized on tape manip- 
ulation as a way forward in sound — a backing track would be reversed and a lead 
guitar solo inserted so that when the track was played in the normal direction 
the guitar would have a much more impactful entry, with rapid decay. 
Nowhere was this better heard than on the incredible psychedelic title track 
‘Are You Experienced’, which set a peerless standard for what could be 
achieved with the electric guitar. With its ratchety entrance and swirling, 
fibrillating solos, this was awesomely advanced music, drenched in an electronic 
sound never before captured on disc. 

Hendrix was a master of instrumental sound. Are You Experienced proved that 
he wasn’t just writing songs with musical accompaniment but also creating 
word- and sound-paintings. The Ambience of his tone was everything, 
nowhere more successful than on the near-seven-minute aural extravaganza 
‘Third Stone From The Sun’. The song seemed to have been cut from a modal- 
jazz improvisation with a dollop of effects thrown in. Hendrix adapted Roger 
Mayer’s various harmonic, fuzz and boosting devices on the succulent guitar 
solos here; vocals were spoken words where even Hendrix berated The Beach 
Boys. Controlled feedback, deft mixing and Kramer and Hendrix’s panning on 
the console made this a stand-out performance. 

During the summer of 1967 Hendrix worked on ‘The Burning Of The 
Midnight Lamp’ in London and New York. This was rock soul saturated in 
even more adventurous Hendrix sounds. Here he used an electric harpsichord, 
the early Mellotron sampling instrument and the guitar accessory that he was 
best known for, a Vox wah-wah pedal. The latter gave the guitar a wave-like 
fluttering sound and would be modified by Roger Mayer for Hendrix’s next 
album, the lilting Axis — Bold As Love (Track 1967). During the thirty takes of 
‘Burning’ Hendrix would meet engineer Gary Kellgren, a friend of Tom 
Wilson (the legendary black producer of Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and The 
Velvet Underground). Kellgren would be important in shaping Hendrix’s later 
American recording scene. 

Back in London, Hendrix spent much time at Olympic Studios with Eddie 
Kramer, pushing for more extraordinary music. Recorded in the summer and 
autumn of 1967, Axis — Bold As Love was inspired by Hopi Indian symbolism 
and was full of colour and number associations. The Technicolor sound of this 
record was achieved by the use of phasing, a new procedure invented by 
Olympic second engineer George Chkiantz whereby an instrument’s frequency 
seemed to whirl out of the speakers. The Beatles had tried something similar 
with Eddie Kramer using double-tracking in the early summer of 1967, but the 
real thing in stereo was achieved by Chkiantz and Kramer at Olympic. The 
whole idea was that two signals were superimposed on one another, one at a 
slightly different speed and frequency. 

If phasing was heard to devastating effect on the outro of the title track of 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


203 


Axis , its subtle use was detected on Hendrix’s vocal on ‘Little Wing’, one of his 
finest achievements. A beautiful short lullaby, this immaculate composition 
featured glockenspiel, Hendrix’s mellifluous guitar fed through a small revol- 
ving Leslie speaker, and the use of a Pultec filter. The Leslie speaker gave the 
guitar a shifting Doppler effect while the Pultec made Hendrix sound as if he 
was singing from a great height. Another ballad, the wonderfully picturesque 
‘Castles Made Of Sand’, had one of Hendrix’s most heartfelt backwards guitar 
solos ever. The album made extensive use of Octavia, fuzz and wah-wah pedal. 
Again Hendrix had ventured to the very frontiers of studio sound. 

Hendrix’s greatest work, Electric Ladyland, would hit the top of the American 
charts in the autumn of 1968. A double-LP celebration of his black roots, this 
was the most potent electric blues ever recorded. Full of soul and Gospel 
touches, Electric Ladyland contained its share of studio live playing but also a 
tremendous amount of Ambient electronica. Recorded between early spring 
and late summer 1968, it benefited from being put down in a new studio, the 
Record Plant in New York, opened by Hendrix’s old friend Gary Kellgren with 
Tom Wilson’s help. The studio boasted one of the first twelve-track tape 
machines in the industry. Eddie Kramer was brought over from London to 
engineer and Hendrix was its first prestigious client. The album opened with the 
ninety-second sound collage ‘And The Gods Made Love’, a science-fiction 
Ambience of backwards voice and cymbals, echoed drums, tape loops and delay, 
all mixed manually by Hendrix and Kramer. The album included ‘Midnight 
Lamp’ and lots of wah-wah pedal on other tracks. 

Each side of the double album summoned up a different mood - its first the 
blues, its last incendiary protest. But the best track was ‘1983 ... (A Merman I 
Should Turn To Be)’/‘Moon Turn The Tides . . . gently gently away’ — a near- 
fifteen-minute subaqueous Ambient odyssey. Hendrix played all the instru- 
ments himself except the flute, which was contributed by Traffic’s Chris Wood. 
Sounds were speeded up and slowed down, the effect of crying seagulls was 
coaxed from feedbacking headphones and tape-altered African bells adorned the 
mix. Kramer and Hendrix decided that the panning, fading and sound effects 
would be mixed as a performance with no edits. Throughout the flow and 
eddies of ‘1983’ Hendrix displayed a magician’s understanding of volume, tone, 
colour and timbre, and in the process put down guitar solos of such majesty that 
everyone knew on hearing them that this was the work of a maestro. Some have 
even remarked on the classical structure of the piece, its harmony chordings 
recalling the sonata form of old. 

A further example of this kind of sound-painting was done at TTG studios in 
Los Angeles the very month that Electric Ladyland came out. Equipped with a 
sixteen-track tape machine, Hendrix used lots of backwards guitar and a lead 
guitar with the warbly tone of a new Uni-Vibe effects unit. This instrumental 
also featured altered drums and was called ‘New Rising Sun’, the phantasma- 
goric intro to Hendrix’s fourth, unfinished album. Having played Woodstock in 
1969, Hendrix spent much time in America with black groups such as The Band 



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of Gypsys. He had his own studio in New York, Electric Lady, and continued to 
record. With former Air Force buddy Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell still 
on drums, the rippling hypnotic instrumental Tali Gap’, recorded in the 
summer of 1970, had a mythological feel, its ethnic guitar sound deriving 
from the use of the Uni-Vibe unit. Another example of this cleaner sound could 
be heard on the burring intro to ‘Hey Baby’, recorded during the same period. 

So near the end of his life, Hendrix was refining his musicality. It’s no secret 
that he sought to widen his vision at the same time as many around him wished 
him to continue performing the hits in the old flashy manner. Hendrix was 
interested in working with Miles Davis and an orchestral recording arranged by 
Gil Evans was definitely in the pipeline. His vibrato-full guitar style seemed to 
connect directly to people of both his own and successive generations. A 
musician capable of playing lead, harmony, rhythm and singing at the same 
time, he had a gift that seemed to stretch the bounds of human capacity. 

Live, Hendrix plugged his Fender into a personalized array of effects pedals and 
boxes, a system which included his wah-wah, fuzz and Uni-Vibe units as well as 
the octave-jumping Octavia gizmo. With an instmment tuned in complex flat 
and sharp keys, his palette of sounds seemed limitless. On top of this, Hendrix had 
a consummate understanding of feedback - the noise created by a looping signal 
going from loudspeaker to electric guitar through a loud amplifier. Hendrix knew 
exactly how to control this noise, standing in the right place, tapping different 
parts of his Fender (including the springs at the back) to achieve startling effects. 
His greatest live epitaph was ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock in 1969, 
an interpretation that saw Hendrix pass into the realms of myth. Brian Eno once 
commented to me: ‘He was heroic, really. At Woodstock he had enough suss to 
continually make the corrections necessary to work around a completely out of 
tune guitar. He was amazing really, a real Paganini. He was absolutely one of the 
few people one could call a genius.’ 

LISTENING 

In 1992 Castle Communications issued a disc titled If 60s Were 90s attributed to 
Beautiful People. This was an exciting House mix of Hendrix material by two 
Surrey musicians, Luke Baldry and Du Kane, facilitated by imaginative use of an 
Akai SI 000 sampler and unprecedented access to the tape vaults. In 1993 
Polydor reissued the core Hendrix catalogue in tastefully remastered CD 
editions with deluxe booklets. In 1995 they released a disc called Voodoo Soup, 
which attempted to approximate Hendrix’s final album. Compiled by producer 
Alan Douglas, it contained ‘New Rising Sun’ and ‘Pali Gap’, its back cover 
featuring a rare shot of Hendrix performing in front of a black audience in 
Harlem, New York, in 1969. 

By 1996 Paul Allen, of the giant Microsoft corporation, had closed years of 
litigation by getting the Hendrix catalogue returned to Hendrix’s remaining 
family in Seattle. A deal was done with MCA/Universal for the release in 1997 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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of an entirely new catalogue, this time digitally remastered by Eddie Kramer. 
Are You Experienced , Axis - Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland are all essential 
twentieth-century recordings. ‘Pali Gap’ and ‘Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)’, 
originally released on Rainbow Bridge (Reprise 1971), can be heard on First Rays 
Of The New Rising Sun (MCA 1997) and South Saturn Delta (MCA 1997) 
respectively. In 2000 came the highlight of the reissue schedule, The Jimi 
Hendrix Experience — a lavish 56-track retrospective of rare and unreleased 
material in a purple velvet book. 


RAVI SHANKAR 

If both psychedelia and Minimalism had the effect of suspending time in the 
listener’s head, it is no surprise to find that both were fuelled by the West’s 
discovery of traditional Indian music. Ravi Shankar, in particular, became the 
great guru of that tradition, his influence leaving an indelible mark on the music 
of The Beatles, The Byrds and Philip Glass. In fact the entire 1960s fascination 
with Indian music can be traced to Shankar, whose appearances at Monterey 
Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969 cemented his reputation. His meeting 
with Philip Glass in Paris in the mid-1960s led the young American composer to 
reject rigid bar lines for undulating rhythm, thus forming the basis for a new 
kind of writing known as Minimalism. Most importantly, Shankar’s continual 
recording and performances exposed listeners to a form of music which was 
open-ended, modal and improvisatory. Without Shankar the idea of Ambient 
sound would have taken longer to evolve. 

To appreciate the contribution of Ravi Shankar, it is interesting to understand a 
little about the music itself. Shankar is the chief exponent of Northern Indian or 
Hindustani music. (His namesake the violinist L. Shankar is the most visible face of 
Southern Indian or Carnatic music, a music made famous by his 1970s recordings 
with John McLaughlin in the group Shakti.) The Northern Indian tradition goes 
back 2,000 years and its chief instruments are the stringed sitar and double tabla 
dmms. Accompanying instruments, such as the stringed sarod, dronal tambura 
and bamboo flute, are also used. The huge musical form known as the ‘raga’ came 
to a fixed resolution as late as 1800. The raga was born out of seventy-two scales 
which use the microtones between tones to generate greater variety. There are 
many inflections and ornamentations of the notes, and the knowledge of these has 
been passed down through an oral tradition over many centuries. 

A similar structure exists in most of Ravi Shankar’s sitar recordings. Firstly 
there is the alap, or opening scale, which is simply played forward and then 
reversed to set the mood. Next comes the rhythmical exposition known as the 
jod. Then there is the best-known element, the gat. In this we hear the kernel of 
the piece, its song, so to speak. Here also there is improvisation, the tablas 
speeding up to push the sitarist to greater heights of virtuosity. The tabla playing 



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itself is incredibly intricate, with hundreds of beat cycles to choose from. The 
sitar is a complex musical tool with moveable convex frets and underlying 
sympathetic strings. It takes about twenty years of study to become a true 
virtuoso on either instrument. 

Ravi Shankar was bom in 1920 in the holy city of Varanasi, famous for its silk. 
When only ten he went to Paris to work with his brother Uday’s Hindu dance 
and music troupe. He danced and played both the sarod and sitar. On tour with 
the master sarod player Allauddin Khan, Shankar impressed him with his 
musical gifts. When Shankar was eighteen he journeyed to the Northern 
Indian town of Maihar to study with Khan and his son Ali Akbar. Shankar spent 
sixteen hours a day practising the sitar, on a musical and spiritual voyage that 
would last eight years. 

He began performing in the late 1940s and by 1949 was a musical director at 
All-India Radio. During the six years he worked there he wrote much music, 
including film scores, most famously for Satyajit Ray’s Father Panchali (1955). 
When Ali Akbar Khan recorded with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in that year, 
Shankar was inspired to go on a tour of Europe and America. He gave recitals 
and expositions of Indian music all over the world in the decade preceding his 
meeting with George Harrison. He founded his own Kinnara music school in 
Bombay in 1962 and recorded with both Yehudi Menuhin and the Ambient 
flautist Paul Horn. Shankar was also accessible to the jazz world and influenced 
the American Minimalist La Monte Young. 

Having spent so much time in France when he was a boy, Shankar was fully 
open to the modernity of be-bop jazz, abstract art, new-wave cinema and 
everything else that the 1960s had to throw at him. He even worked with Philip 
Glass in Paris on a film soundtrack in 1965. Yet, having been taught by a master 
court musician, he embodied much Indian tradition. Shankar’s increasingly 
popular recordings were having a huge effect on rock music. The Byrds’ David 
Crosby was so obsessed with Shankar that he pushed his own group and The 
Beatles towards raga-rock in the autumn of 1965. Both The Beatles’ ‘Norwe- 
gian Wood’ and The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ came out of an intense, trippy 
discussion the two groups had about Shankar in Los Angeles before their 
recording. Moreover the melismatic highs and sitar and tabla delights of 
Revolver , released in 1966, were a direct product of Harrison’s increasing 
fascination with Indian music. That summer, during the recording of the 
album, Shankar and his tabla player, Alla Rakha, met Harrison in his country 
house. An emotional and a spiritual bond was made that saw Harrison journey 
to Bombay that autumn and spend six weeks in intense study with Shankar. This 
friendship would make Ravi Shankar’s name world-famous. 

Having established a Californian arm of his music school in 1967, Shankar 
was guest of honour at that year’s Monterey International Pop Festival, where 
he played for two and a half hours and was later remembered, alongside Jimi 
Hendrix, as the highlight of the show. His star in the ascendant, Shankar was a 
1960s touring sensation with best-selling records in the US and Europe. He was 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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not at all interested in drugs himself, but his growing constituency was largely 
drawn from drug-taking hippies immersed in a vague Indian mysticism. He 
even played Woodstock in 1969. After organizing and playing the Concert For 
Bangladesh (New York 1971) with George Harrison, Shankar toured the US in 
1974 with the ex-Beatle, who had facilitated his rise to fame and helped 
disseminate his music through releases on Apple and Dark Horse. 

During the tour Shankar suffered a heart attack. Removing himself from the 
rock scene, he wrote concertos for sitar and interested himself in ballet during 
the 1970s. In the early 1980s he joined the Californian Institute of Music. His 
second great film success came with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). 
Now living in California, Ravi Shankar is a constant on the concert platform 
and lecture circuit. Not only did he educate the West in the sound of Northern 
Indian music, he also incorporated many elements of its more florid Carnatic 
counterpart in his performances and recordings. His influence on rock and 
subsequent Ambient styles is immeasurable. With George Harrison’s help, 
Shankar published his autobiography, Raga Mala , in 1998, an exotically 
presented boxed item which came with joss-sticks and two CDs of new and 
archive recordings. 

LISTENING 

There are dozens of Ravi Shankar albums on the market, many little more than 
live recordings. A great one to start with is The Sound Of The Sitar , which came 
out in 1966 and was remastered in Cambridge, England, in 1993 for the Beat 
Goes On label. In fact BGO had released an entire series of vintage Shankar 
albums on disc, including, in 1994, India’s Master Musician from 1959. There are 
various recordings in the ‘Raga Moods’ series, all of which are interesting. The 
classic In Concert recording from 1972, featuring Shankar with Ali Akbar Khan 
and Alla Rakha, is now available again in a two-CD set on The Beatles’ Apple 
label. Remastered in 1996, it is one of the best examples of sitar, sarod, tabla and 
tambura interplay ever recorded. There’s a sublime 1970s disc on Deutsche 
Grammophon titled East Greets East (featuring Shankar and Rakha with 
Japanese classical musicians) and a great recording with Philip Glass, Passages 
(Private Music 1990). Partly recorded in Madras, this was the setting for work 
on Chants Of India (Angel 1997), produced by George Harrison. Their long 
friendship also saw Harrison fund and oversee that year’s retrospective four-disc 
Shankar set In Celebration (Angel). 

In 1998 EMI won the rights to the entire World Pacific/Angel catalogue and 
began releasing new editions of Shankar’s vast output. Recommended discs are 
Improvisations (1962), Live at Monterey (1967) and West Meets East , a superlative 
compilation of recordings made in the late 1960s and 70s with the great violinist 
Yehudi Menuhin. Also of note is Anourag (Angel 2000), the second solo album 
by Ravi’s daughter Anoushka Shankar, the person Shankar feels best-suited to 
carry on his awesome knowledge and teaching of Indian sitar music. 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, NICO AND JOHN CALE 


The Velvet Underground represented the confluence of pure Minimalism, 
glamour and European Decadence in rock. Their emergence in the New York 
of the late 1960s coincided with the moment street culture became high art, 
most visibly embodied in the success of their patron Andy Warhol. Their 
extremely radical music, which used intense repetitions and distorted volumes, 
became a touchstone for musicians such as Can, Joy Division, Brian Eno, Sonic 
Youth and Spacemen 3, to name some. Yet the Velvets could make some of the 
quietest music in the history of the genre, often for the voice of the mysterious 
German chanteuse Nico. Their primary importance derives from the evolution 
of Minimalism into a rock context — masterminded by the gifted composer John 
Cale and streamlined by the talent of the classically trained songwriter Lou 
Reed. With the media sheen provided by Warhol, the group were to become 
icons of subversion, their albums such as The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) 
and White Light /White Heat (1968) regarded as some of the most fantastic 
creations of the twentieth century. 

The kernel of The Velvet Underground was the strange, often fierce creative 
relationship between its principals, Cale and Reed. Cale was impressed by the 
intelligence of the writing which Reed brought to rock. Reed was awed by 
Cale’s unpredictable spirit and his so-called playing of ‘unauthorized music’ on 
amplified viola. John Cale was Welsh, born in 1942 in Garnant to a coalminer 
father. Hymns and both composition and performance ran in his blood. He 
began piano at three, viola at five and gave his first BBC performance at eight. 
At the beginning of the 1960s he entered Goldsmiths College in London to 
pursue formal music studies, including a projected thesis on the relationship 
between Webern’s Serialism and secret codes. Instead he became obsessed with 
the work of John Cage and La Monte Young. After three years he was expelled 
but gained a Bernstein scholarship to study with the Greek composer Iannis 
Xenakis at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. There he alienated his mentors by 
physically attacking his instmments in performance. His hero became the 
Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp. 

In the autumn of 1963 Cale and Cage performed a piece by Erik Satie. The 
repetition of the French composer’s 180-note piano piece Vexations the 
required 840 times took more than eighteen hours and made New York 
headlines. It was then that Cale would forge one of the most important musical 
relationships in history, that with La Monte Young in The Theatre Of Eternal 
Music, better known as The Dream Syndicate. The basis of this group, which 
included Young, his wife Marian Zazeela, the violinist Tony Conrad and 
percussionist Angus MacLise, was the extreme concentration on drones - the 
use of repetition and extension to achieve a trance-like Ambience. Formed in 
1962, the group grew out of Young’s jazz and raga leanings but with the arrival 
of John Cale in 1963 became more purely scientific. According to Cale: ‘We 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


209 


were working with the cross-over point of physics in sound and what the basic 
nature of a fundamental was - the results were all these resonating tones.’ 

Young played high-pitched saxophones and was persuaded by Cale, at times, 
to hold vocal notes as he and Conrad droned away on strings. The results, like B 
flat Dorian Blues (1963), sounded as if they derived from an Indian Ashram but 
the 1964 recording of Fire Is Emir introduced electronic sounds. Cale believed 
the whole Dream Syndicate experience to be pivotal: ‘I felt I could make my 
mark with the viola. I filed the bridge down and played it with a bass bow. It was 
collaborative improvisation, an experiment with harmonics and fundamentals, 
with strings being the overwhelming force in the music. It was, and still is, the 
benchmark experiment in drones and the famous “just intonation” system of 
tuning.’ Though it attracted the interest of Terry Riley, the importance of The 
Dream Syndicate to Cale was Young’s military discipline, the coming together 
every day to practise and repeat music over and over until it was wholly 
absorbed and understood. This would formulate the early working routines of 
The Velvet Underground. Both Cale and Conrad left The Dream Syndicate for 
pastures new in 1965. 

Lou Reed came from a totally different scenario. Bom in New York to a tax 
accountant in 1942, the young Jewish boy had classical piano lessons, read 
poetry and was a good athlete. He moved to Freeport, Long Island, when he 
was twelve but was so disturbed as a teenager that he was subjected to electro- 
shock therapy at seventeen. Then he went to New York University but didn’t 
last a year. In 1960 he signed up at the leafy Syracuse University in upstate New 
York, where he studied literature and philosophy but also took classes in music 
theory and composition. Always interested in rock ’n’ roll records, Reed played 
a lot of music, often with Sterling Morrison, whom he met on campus in 1961. 
Reed was also into writing, inspired by his mentor the poet Delmore Schwartz. 
Heavily into dmgs, Reed barely graduated in 1964. From there he went to 
work at Pickwick Records in Long Island as a hack songwriter. 

Early in 1965 he wrote a song which involved a completely open-tuned 
dronal guitar, a track which he, Cale and Conrad recorded as The Primitives. 
The group died a death but soon Reed and Cale were living together on 
Manhattan’s Lower East Side and making music. They were joined by Reed’s 
old friend Sterling Morrison on guitar. Morrison, born the same year as Reed, 
had studied classical trumpet until thirteen, when he discovered black blues and 
rock and Django Reinhardt. Academically disposed to English literature, he 
nevertheless went for what Cale and Reed were doing. Cale’s old friend from 
The Dream Syndicate, Angus MacLise, provided support on tablas. Early demos 
saw Reed play harmonica a la Bob Dylan and the recording of songs with slow, 
raga-like exposition. Cale recorded everything on reel-to-reel tape. Tony 
Conrad gave the group their name after an erotic book he found in the street. 
MacLise, not interested in playing live, was replaced by Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker, 
an acquaintance of Reed and Morrison from their college days. Tucker, born in 
1946 and from Long Island, worked in computers but was obsessed with African 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


drumming. Her approach was a steady-pulse beat using bass drums and toms. 
The Velvet Underground was born in December 1965. 

Playing a residency in Greenwich Village, they were spotted by Andy 
Warhol, who was then moving into films and rock music. He was attracted 
by their unstinting music, with its lyrical basis in the Decadence of nineteenth- 
century French writers such as Baudelaire, Lautreamont and Mirbeau. Attired all 
in black with shades to match, The Velvets played noise-drenched music that 
celebrated death, sadomasochism and drugs. It fitted in perfectly with Warhol’s 
desire to shock. At the very beginning of 1966 Warhol was providing equip- 
ment, rehearsal space at his studio, The Factory, and organizing concerts. He 
changed the band by insisting on the presence of a statuesque German singer, 
Nico, who would front the group. 

Nico (Christa Paffgen) was one of the great stars of the 1960s. Born in 1938 in 
Cologne of German and Slavic parents, Nico was multi-lingual, had learned 
piano and harmonium as a child, had appeared in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita , studied 
method acting with Marilyn Monroe and was an international cover model for 
such magazines as Harpers and Vogue. Moreover she had recorded with Jimmy 
Page and Bob Dylan in London in 1965, hung out with The Rolling Stones, 
appeared on TV and was considered one of the most beautiful women of the 
decade. Tall, blonde and with a unique contralto voice which was instantly 
recognizable, Nico was ‘Pop Girl of 1966’. Her presence with The Velvet 
Underground just added to their allure. 

For about a year and a half Warhol incorporated the new-look Velvet 
Underground into a multi-media show called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, 
which was basically The Factory on tour. Films, lights and strobes were 
projected on to the group as dancers and other members of Warhol’s travelling 
theatre ‘freaked out’ around them. The media were awed at the ‘discordant 
music, throbbing cadences and pulsating tempo’. In Chicago one paper alluded 
to Baudelaire by describing The Exploding Plastic Inevitable’s performance as a 
‘total environment with the flowers of evil in full bloom’. In San Francisco The 
Velvets’ sound was seen as ‘shatteringly contemporary electronic music’. 
Warhol’s next objective was to get them on record and he approached both 
Columbia and MGM. Columbia put up some money for a day’s work in an old 
Manhattan studio with Andy Warhol, but Tom Wilson, the producer of Dylan 
and Simon & Garfunkel, felt he could do better work on four tracks — ‘I’m 
Waiting For The Man’, ‘Heroin’, ‘Venus In Furs’ and ‘Sunday Morning’. The 
bulk of this was done in Los Angeles. Basically The Velvets’ first album was 
recorded in two days in the spring of 1966. 

The Velvet Underground &Nico (V erve), subtitled ‘Produced by Andy Warhol’, 
wouldn’t be released until the summer of 1967 and was far too innovative even 
for the Summer of Love. The record was shot through with total contrasts 
between ballads and sound constructions that teetered on the brink of white 
noise. Nico sang soft, emotional songs written for her by Reed, such as ‘I’ll Be 
Your Mirror’ and ‘Femme Fatale’, yet her finest moment was the riveting ‘All 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


211 


Tomorrow’s Parties’, which sounded as if it came from the Middle Ages. Here 
both Reed and Cale incorporated much of their Minimalist knowledge into the 
construction. Piano keys just kept repeating chords while Reed tuned his guitar 
strings to the same note and played a Byrds-like raga lead. Tucker hit her drums 
in perfect time. This metronomic element was best heard on ‘I’m Waiting For 
The Man’, a fast rocker whose persistent beat and wall of rough guitar chords 
were the very essence of Minimalism. The detuned instruments and Cale’s 
severe viola drones were brilliantly realized on the sadomasochistic shocker 
‘Venus In Furs’. What Cale had done with The Dream Syndicate could be best 
heard on ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ while his ‘concrete music’ subver- 
siveness and The Velvets’ entire noise aesthetic exploded on ‘European Son’. In 
short, The Velvet Underground &Nico was one of the most inspired debuts in rock 
history. 

Performing live, The Velvets increased the noise element, their feedbacking 
guitars topped by Nico’s wailing, shivering voice. Nico starred in Warhol’s film 
Chelsea Girls and went to the Cannes Festival in 1967. Increasingly interested in 
furthering her solo career, she recorded her first solo album, Chelsea Girl, with 
Tom Wilson in New York that year. It was full of material penned by The 
Velvets, the haunting ‘It Was A Pleasure Then’ basically a Velvet Underground 
excursion into painted sound. Nico’s sometimes harsh voice was softened by 
added flutes and strings which she didn’t want; in her own words: ‘I was 
heartbroken.’ 

Nico continued to record - both Marble Index (Elektra 1969) and Desertshore 
(Reprise 1971) were midwifed by John Cale and featured Nico singing and 
playing harmonium. Her dramatic, almost Gothic style was inspired by Jim 
Morrison, whom she loved until his death. In a life dogged by drug problems, 
Nico’s last great moment was an atmospheric recording of ‘My Funny 
Valentine’ in 1985, but her peripatetic lifestyle took its toll when she suffered 
a heart attack and brain trauma in Ibiza in 1988. 

Back in Velvet-land, sans Nico The Velvet Underground were becoming a 
top-line rock band. Songs from the spring and summer of 1967, like ‘Guess I’m 
Falling In Love’, were full of chugging, changing tempos. In the autumn of 
1967 they were back in the studio with Tom Wilson for the recording of White 
Light /White Heat (Verve 1968). Lou Reed was getting into guitar effects gizmos 
of the kind made by Vox, who were endorsing the group. The album was a 
salvo of distorted noise, even though Reed played piano and Cale organ. The 
Minimalist repetition was still there but, as on the title track, the sound was 
saturated with volume. In contrast, ‘The Gift’ was sheer sonic theatre as Cale 
recited the story of a guy mailing himself to his intended with churning, 
feedbacking guitar as background. Reed relieved the tension on the relatively 
light ‘Here She Comes Now’ but let it all out on the brain-searing ‘Heard Her 
Call My Name’, where his screaming Gretsch guitar collided with Tucker’s 
belting hammer-drum drone. Much has been made of the concluding seven- 
teen-minute improvisation ‘Sister Ray’. Though it was brave at the time, 



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history makes it sound like a mish-mash. Certainly its effect pales in comparison 
with ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’. 

John Cale was thrown out of the group in the autumn of 1968 and the classic 
Velvet Underground was no more. Reed took control and developed his 
confessional songwriting approach on the introspective, Hollywood-recorded 
Velvet Underground (MGM 1969) and Loaded (Cotillion 1970), laid down in 
New York. Loaded was recorded in a soft-rock style with some stand-out tracks 
but with nothing of the innovative spirit of the first two albums. Reed went on 
to become a rock star while Tucker had children and worked in a supermarket. 
John Cale became one of the most prolific producers, arrangers and creators of 
the subsequent decades. Between 1968 and 1972 he worked for Elektra, CBS 
and Warner Bros. His first important album was Church Of Anthrax (CBS 1971) 
with Terry Riley. Cale played harpsichord, among other things, but Riley 
walked out of the New York sessions, leaving only the composition The Hall Of 
Mirrors In The Palace Of Versailles bearing his customary stamp of tape-delayed 
organ and saxophone. The Academy In Peril (Reprise 1972) was recorded at 
Virgin’s Manor studios in Oxfordshire with the Royal Philharmonic and 
contained some lovely quiet instrumentals. Cale then fused atmosphere with 
pop lyricism on the resonant Paris 1919 (Reprise 1973). He returned to rock 
recording with Eno and others for the Island label, his crowning Ambient 
achievement being the evocative sound-film ‘The Jeweller’ of 1975. 

Relocated in New York, Cale recorded the harrowingly introspective Music 
For A New Society (Island 1982) and began working on ballets and string quartets 
as the decade wore on. Warhol’s death in 1987 prompted a reunion of The 
Velvet Underground’s two most potent creators, Reed and Cale, on Songs For 
Drella (Sire 1990), ‘a work for guitar, viola and Midi System’, according to Cale. 
This resulted in a short Velvet Underground reunion in Paris which sprouted 
into a full-scale European tour in 1993. Significantly, at that time Cale 
considered Arvo Part, Percy Grainger and Miles Davis to be some of the 
greatest musicians ever. 

LISTENING 

In 1995 Polydor gathered together all known Velvet Underground tracks for 
the indispensable five-CD boxed set Peel Slowly And See. One of the finest 
collections ever, it included all the original albums, out-takes, live material and a 
lavishly illustrated booklet written by Rolling Stone writer David Fricke. (The 
only minus point was his hazy knowledge of Nico, which had her born in 
Budapest!) If you buy only one Velvets album The Velvet Underground &Nico has 
to be it. All Nico and Cale albums cited above are worth hearing. In addition 
Cale’s dedication to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Words For The Dying (Land 
1989) is interesting for its arabesque orchestral interludes and floating synthesizer 
lines. Unsurprisingly, it was produced in Moscow and in Suffolk by Brian Eno. 
Obviously inspired, Cale went on to record a series of Satie-like piano 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


213 


miniatures for the film-maker (and old Nico cohort) Philippe Garrel titled 23 
Solo Pieces for La Naissance de V Amour (Crepuscule 1993). 


SIMON & GARFUNKEL 

In search of ‘records full of breathing’, Simon & Garfunkel pushed studio 
technology to its limits to achieve some of the finest production jobs of the 
1960s. Influenced by The Beatles, the modal sound of English folk and the 
sweet harmonies of The Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel continually 
expanded the horizons of the recording procedure until the beginning of 1970 
saw them release an album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, whose sixteen-track 
cinemascopic sound defined a new era of sonic fidelity. 

Like those of The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel’s songs were full of instru- 
mental niceties, subtle drop-ins and strange sounds. With Simon’s deft use of 
acoustic guitar and Garfunkel’s irresistibly sweet falsetto, a Simon & Garfunkel 
song was like taking an exotic shower, so full was it of aural surprise. Ably 
assisted by ‘third member’ their engineer Roy Halee, they could spend months 
on a song. Art Garfunkel talked of going through hundreds of takes to get the 
vocals of the Gospel masterpiece ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ right. And Paul 
Simon spoke about the ‘closely worked-out harmony, doubled right-on using 
four voices’ - basically having the technical ability to re-record a line precisely as 
it was sung before using two voices. 

Simon & Garfunkel’s closeness was typical of two New York middle-class 
Jewish boys bom in the early 1940s and growing up in the same neighbour- 
hood. From an early age they sang together and fiddled around with tape 
recorders in Garfunkel’s basement. They worked on gruelling diction exercises 
and in the late 1950s had an early chart success with the chuggy rock ’n’ roll 
number ‘Hey Schoolgirl’. While attending different universities in New York, 
Simon studying English, Garfunkel majoring in architecture, they both worked 
at the Brill Building song factory. 

Simon felt the folk circuit in Britain offered a better avenue and in 1964 
dropped out to do a poverty-stricken trek around the country. Over two 
periods in 1964 and 1965 he would write some of his first great works, like 
‘Kathy’s Song’ and ‘Scarborough Fair’, influenced by the new English folk- 
guitar style of Bert Jansch and Davy Graham. Here expanded open chordings 
more akin to jazz and Indian music lent Simon’s guitar an exotic flair. 

During this time the producer Tom Wilson was excited enough by some 
Simon & Garfunkel demos to offer them a shot at recording. The October 1964 
album Wednesday Morning 3 A. M. had a strong folk feel and one great song, 
‘Sound Of Silence’. The duo spent part of 1965 in London and, so the story 
goes, Wilson got some Bob Dylan sidemen and rocked up ‘Sound Of Silence’. 
It went to number one in November of that year. The single was quickly 



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followed by the Sounds Of Silence album, recorded on four-track tape at various 
Columbia studios in New York, LA and Nashville. The 1966 album sparkled 
with material conceived during Simon’s English sojourn, his version of the 
instrumental guitar piece ‘Anji’ especially impressive. 

Three to four months were spent on Parsley , Sage, Rosemary And Thyme 
(1966) with a new producer, Bob Johnston. Roy Halee and the duo persuaded 
him to use new eight-track recording, and according to Simon they were the 
ones who pushed Columbia into using the technique. The album produced 
another bona-fide sound classic, ‘Scarborough Fair’, a version of an Irish folk 
song which saw Simon & Garfunkel’s voices meld in pure tones. 

Equally impressive was their own year-long production job on Bookends 
(1968), which produced a side-long suite of quiet introspection, including 
‘Bookends Theme’, ‘Overs’ and ‘Old Friends’. Garfunkel’s vocal on ‘America’, 
a quintessential view of their roots, remains a standard. As the album neared 
completion, the soundtrack to The Graduate was released to universal acclaim in 
February 1968. Produced by Miles Davis’s producer Teo Macero, it contained 
strong instrumental flavours, including a fine harp and flute interlude on 
‘Scarborough Fair’. Drones and congas personified the stand-out signature tune 
‘Mrs Robinson’. That LP and Bookends , released in April 1968, saw Simon & 
Garfunkel garner two number-one albums and Grammy awards within a matter 
of months. 

Having punched in loads of vocal overdubs on Bookends , Simon wanted to go 
further in search of the ‘total record’. He got Roy Halee to hook up two eight- 
track machines at Columbia to record a mini-epic in sound. This new sixteen- 
track process could be distinctly heard on ‘The Boxer’, a brilliant sound-novel, 
introduced softly by acoustic guitar but building up over five minutes into a 
string-soaked epic with a huge, repeating outro. On the way, bass harmonica, 
trumpet, pedal-steel guitar and echo effects were all employed. Released as a 
single in 1969, it was only a promise of what was to come. 

Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970) was conceived in the turmoil of the 
previous year. Simon had argued with Garfunkel about the finale of ‘The 
Boxer’ while Art’s growing closeness with Mike Nichols landed him parts in 
the films Catch 22 (1970) and Carnal Knowledge (1971). His absence from the 
studio resulted in Simon planning a lot of tracks with Halee which evoked his 
love of early rock ’n’ roll, ethnic music and folk. Garfunkel is very present on 
‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’, a tribute to the American architect, and of 
course the title track. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was a Gospel inspired by 
the massed Phil Spector sound. Because of its high-falsetto vocal it was given 
to Garfunkel by Simon on the former’s return from filming. Recorded in LA 
and New York, the song was nailed down in the winter of 1969. It took four 
whole days to get Larry Knechtel’s piano part right and two whole days for Art 
to perfect the tri-part vocal, the last verse of which is considered his finest-ever 
performance. Two basses, vibraphone and drums transmitted via an echo- 
chamber on to reverberating tape were all added and then flushed down by a 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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huge Los Angeles string ensemble. Even after the writing and arranging were 
complete, the number took two weeks of non-stop work to record. This was 
high-fidelity rock of such grandeur that it made Simon 8c Garfunkel superstars. 
As the album rode for ten weeks at number one on the US album charts Simon 
&c Garfunkel broke up. Fittingly it was at the very zenith of their collective 
powers. 

LISTENING 

In 1972 Columbia released the remarkable Simon & Garfunkel’ s Greatest Hits. A 
million-seller, it contained four unreleased live tracks — ‘For Emily’, ‘Kathy’s 
Song’, ‘59th Street Bridge Song’ and ‘Homeward Bound’ - which all display 
the Simon 8c Garfunkel sound at its very best. Better still was that all the tracks 
dovetailed into one another. Released on CD in the late 1980s, this a fantastic 
place to start. The individual albums, Sounds Of Silence , The Graduate , Bookends 
and Bridge Over Troubled Water, all contain their requisite of sonic gold. A triple- 
disc set, Old Friends (Columbia Legacy 1997), contains fifteen unreleased tracks 
and charts the duo’s history. 


THE ROLLING STONES 

Though the Rolling Stones are often perceived as the world’s most famous 
exponents of no-frills rock ’n’ roll, some aspects of their story are very relevant 
to the progress of Ambient and electronic music. During the late 1960s Mick 
Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones all did things that had a huge effect on 
musical history, familiarizing the public in the process with exotic instrumenta- 
tion and the Moog synthesizer and thus opening the way for the arrival of 
Trance music and Rave culture. 

Jagger, Richards and Jones had been bom in England in the early 1940s. By 
1966 they were riding a high of popularity and were one of the most successful 
draws on the concert circuit. By that time a string of recordings had revealed 
that Brian Jones was a multi-instrumentalist of exceptional talent. The baroque 
‘Lady Jane’ featured his dulcimer, he played sitar on the urgent ‘Paint It Black’, 
the ethnically flavoured ‘Under My Thumb’ had him on marimba and the 
yearning ‘Ruby Tuesday’ included a marvellous flute performance by Jones. By 
the summer of 1967 he was in charge of the brass and Mellotron sections of the 
psychedelic droney ‘We Love You’. 

During the extended recording of Their Satanic Majesties Request (Decca 
1967), The Stones’ hazy reply to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club 
Band, Jones appeared on Mellotron, flute, sitar and bongos. His instmmental 
talents also extended to harpsichord, piano and guitar. From 1965 to 1967 Jones 
had taken frequent trips to Morocco. In 1968, through a complex web of 



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contacts that included the writer and musician Paul Bowles and the painter and 
writer Brion Gysin, he was able to take recording equipment to Morocco to 
record indigenous music. In the spring of 1968 he recorded the music of the 
black Gnawa musicians of Marrakesh but the results were poor. A better 
recording (using two Uher reel-to-reel tape machines) was achieved in the Rif 
Mountains that autumn with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. This village 
featured a musical tradition which stretched back 4,000 years to a pre-Islamic 
Sufi era. The music was driven by tebel drums and high-pitched ghaita flutes; 
bamboo flute was also played. The emphasis was on reaching a trance-like state 
through repetition and rhythm. 

Such a bold step was marred by Jones’s death at twenty-seven. In London the 
tapes were remixed by George Chkiantz at Olympic Studios, who phased the 
drum sound as he had done on the music of Jimi Hendrix. Only pressure by 
Brion Gysin and the Master Musicians of Jajouka themselves saw the release of 
Brian Jones Presents The Pipes Of Pan At Jajouka (Rolling Stones) in 1971. Yet the 
recording was a seminal one. Praised by William Burroughs and Philip Glass, to 
name two, it opened up whole new vistas for a generation of rock lovers, paving 
the way for the coming of World Music and later Trance. As a tribute The 
Stones later returned to Tangier to record ‘Continental Drift’ with the Jajouka 
musicians for their CBS album Steel Wheels (1989). 

There are elements of tape manipulation on Their Satanic Majesties Request , 
but without a knowledge of Stockhausen, Cage or other pioneering composers, 
the 1967 Stones found themselves in a muddle, unable to come up with an 
album as consistently original as Sgt. Pepper. When they met an American 
producer with a bias towards rocking black music, they reverted to form. Jimmy 
Miller was instrumental in defining The Stones’ crisply recorded sound. He 
began working with them in 1968 and stayed on board for seven years and seven 
albums. He guided them from four-track recording into the era of sixteen-track. 
He encouraged Richards’ famous cassette demos plus open tuning and the use 
of wah-wah pedal on his guitars. From the sitar and tambura-laden highs 
(courtesy ofBrianJones) of ‘Street Fighting Man’ (1968) to the Jamaican sessions 
which produced the US number-one ballad ‘Angie’ (1973), Miller was there. 
He also oversaw a period in which the group’s Rolling Stones Mobile recording 
studio became a prominent feature of European on-location rock recording. Its 
most famous use was on Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, recorded at a 
run-down mansion in Berkshire called Headley Grange in early 1971 . There the 
Stones Mobile helped track the landmark sessions for the acoustic-rock classic 
‘Stairway To Heaven’. 

Finally Mick Jagger’s interest in the Moog synthesizer had a startling out- 
come. In 1967 he purchased a Moog Modular synthesizer at a very exorbitant 
price. Ostensibly it was to be used for a Kenneth Anger film, Invocation Of My 
Demon Brother (1968), a Californian homoerotic art-movie short. Jagger’s single- 
note stabs on the instrument showed a lack of patience and an underestimation 
of the complexity of the instrument. The synthesizer ended up as a prop on the 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


217 


set of Performance , a violent and druggy period piece shot in 1968 and featuring 
Jagger as a faded rock idol. Interested, the American Moog expert Paul Beaver 
coaxed more laudatory sounds from the instrument for the film’s eventual 1970 
soundtrack. Unable to see a use for the Moog, Jagger sold it to the Hansa By 
The Wall recording studio in Berlin. It languished there until 1973, when 
Christoph Franke bought it for $15,000. Franke had practised on that very 
Moog for years, and even though it took hours to tune, with its spaghetti 
junction of patching and drifting oscillations, he found it the perfect instrument 
for an entirely new sound. That sound was sequencing and Franke was then a 
member of Tangerine Dream. Hence Jagger and one of the most important 
group’s in electronic music history are linked by that Moog synthesizer. 

LISTENING 

The 1960s recordings of The Stones are on Decca/ABKO. The major 1970s 
recordings are now on Virgin. Brian Jones Presents The Pipes Of Pan At Jajouka 
was reissued by Philip Glass on his Point Music label in a new CD edition in 
1995. 


MARVIN GAYE AND VAN MORRISON 

There are many artists who could be lauded for their contributions to the 
Ambience of the voice but no two have had such a profound affect on the 
twentieth century as Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison. Gaye literally trans- 
formed the entire recording process for black soul singers, showing with his 
early- 1970s masterpiece What's Going On that a sweet voice could deliver 
substantial depth worthy of a consistent thematic album. Van Morrison, for his 
part, used the vocal setting as a vehicle for ‘inducing states of meditation and 
ecstasy’. His spiritual quest in sound led to some of the most memorable 
Ambient vocal music ever committed to tape. 

Amazingly, Marvin Gaye was a very shy musician who grew up a musical 
prodigy. Born in Washington in 1939, Gaye first performed publicly by playing 
the organ in his father’s church. His musical gift saw him in the high-school 
orchestra before various vocal groups attracted his interest in his late teens. On a 
trip to Detroit with one group he was spotted by Tamla Motown boss Berry 
Gordy and signed to the label as a drummer. By the early 1960s he was singing, 
his lush velvet voice making evergreen classics of songs like ‘How Sweet It Is To 
Be Loved By You’ (1964) and ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ (1968). As 
with The Beatles and their hit singles, the huge success of the latter (a 
transatlantic number one) allowed Gaye to get away from the restrictions of 
the three-minute single. 

Despite Gaye’s reputation, Motown was very nervous about him ruining his 



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winning formula. Detroit studio sessions for his ‘concept album’ dragged 
through the summer of 1970, with more work done in the spring of 1971. 
Inspired by his brother’s Vietnam War experiences, Gaye urged his songwriting 
team to come up with a continuous suite of songs full of social observations. 
Poverty, the loss of faith, despair, ecology and the need for love were the 
overwhelming themes. Most importantly, the potent lyrics were couched in 
very accessible upbeat arrangements which seemed to swim along in their own 
atmosphere. The list of musicians was vast, including vibes, percussion, celesta, 
harp, nine violins, four violas, three cellos, two trumpets, two flutes, trombone, 
a range of saxophones, bongos and conga, along with the usual guitars, basses, 
piano and drums. David Van DePitte’s skilful orchestration and Gaye’s subtle 
production touch allowed the arrangements to breath with an incredible clarity. 

Though Berry Gordy was bewildered by the results, What’s Going On (1971) 
went on to become one of Motown’s biggest-selling albums of all time, 
spawning million-selling singles. Like Sgt. Pepper, it opened up whole new 
sound worlds, this time for black soul music — Gaye’s manipulation of tape 
inspiring Stevie Wonder to dive headlong into analogue synthesizers. In effect 
What’s Going On started where Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland had left off. Gaye 
used his new-found vocal confidence at the mike to record an album of aural 
erotica, Let’s Get It On (1973), but the real icing was the fabulous I Want You 
from 1976, a celebration of his love for teenager Janis Hunter. The album was 
recorded, like its predecessor, in California, but this time production was by 
Diana Ross’s brother and another Motown musician, Leon Ware. A year was 
spent with lengthy vocal overdubs, Gaye covering all the ranges with a multi- 
harmony technique. Instrumentally I Want You featured a group but with the 
emphasis on ethnic percussion, wonky off-key bass parts and wah-wahing 
guitars. ‘After The Dance’ even had an instrumental version with what sounded 
like a pitch-bent synthesizer lead from outer space. Melodic parts emerged, 
disappeared and reappeared several times. Sections of the album sounded as if 
they were mere fragments of a larger performance, its overall feel echoed by the 
cover art, which showed a cool black house party. I Want You was an 
intoxicating example of vocal/instrumental Ambience from an artist at the 
very peak of his genius. 

One could say the same about Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, but that 1968 
opus was only the beginning of a remarkable career. Morrison himself saw all his 
previous rhythm and blues recordings as false starts. Born in 1945 in East Belfast 
to working-class Protestants, Morrison had an atypical upbringing in that his 
shipbuilder father loved American jazz, blues and Gospel records while his 
mother liked jazz dancing and singing. He grew up listening to Leadbelly and 
Debussy. His locale was surrounded by all kinds of churches, including Baptist 
and Jehovah’s Witness fraternities. Morrison’s later visions of hills, rivers, 
foghorns, listening to the radio and suchlike can all be traced to what was 
for him a time of inner peace. 

At secondary school he took up the guitar and involved himself in simple 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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skiffle music. When he was thirteen he taught himself saxophone and joined a 
showband looking for a Beat life on the road. He played in Germany before 
returning to Belfast and forming Them in 1964. A successful beat group in the 
Rolling Stones mould, Them toured, eventually reaching the US West Coast 
and touching base with The Doors and Love. Even before he returned to 
America in 1967, Morrison had sketched out elements of Astral Weeks, an 
outpouring of emotions relating to his love for Californian beauty Janet Planet. 
He had a hit with ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ in 1967 but was not happy until he moved 
to New England and began going in a jazz direction, working in the context of 
flute and upright bass. After a deal with Warner Bros., producer Lewis 
Merenstein added vibraphone and percussion plus the formidable talents of 
musicians who had played with Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus. Recorded in 
two evening sessions at Century Sound in New York in the autumn of 1968, 
Astral Weeks was a revelation. Acoustic bassist Richard Davis talked of ‘the 
Ambience of the day going into the evening’ on recordings which were often 
one-take improvisations. Again the mood was one of something lifted from a 
greater whole, subtle vibraphone, classical guitar and wind-blown flute framing 
the effervescent lyrics with a golden glow. Certainly ‘Beside You’ and ‘Slim 
Slow Slider’ held an awesome emotional power, Morrison ululating his feelings 
as sound-visions pulling the listener into a vortex of overflowing expression. 
The unique results quickly established themselves as a classic of the rock canon. 

Morrison quickly grasped that free-expression rock lyrics coloured by the 
timbres of jazz and blues was an original approach. Horn sections, woodwinds, 
acoustic piano and guitar gave him more room to emote at the microphone. At 
the New York studio where he recorded Moondance (1970) he spent months 
getting the balance right, the perfect Ambience of ‘Crazy Love’ one of the 
album’s many highlights. After a move to California and a number of years of 
commercial music-making Morrison returned to expansiveness on St Dominic's 
Preview (1973), recorded in San Francisco. Its closing ten-minute, twelve-string 
acoustic-guitar meditation ‘Almost Independence Day’ even featured Bernie 
Krause on a Moog Modular synthesizer. Flute, recorder and acoustic guitar were 
much in the foreground of Veedon Fleece (1974), a mood-suite which celebrated 
a visit to Ireland and was recorded in his own sixteen-track studio. 

An interest in the English mystic-poet William Blake and other ‘New Age’ 
philosophies brought Morrison back to Europe in the late 1970s. He was now 
working with New Age horn player Mark Isham, and Common One (1980) 
closed with the fifteen-minute Ambient excursion ‘When Heart Is Open’. 
Living in London and expanding the spiritual element of his music even further, 
Morrison embraced Scientology and recorded Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart 
(1983), which was full of Isham’ s ethereal synth work. Tracks like ‘Connswater’ 
and ‘Rave On John Donne’ were singularly atmospheric. Now, in all his 
recordings, he matched his love of blues and soul music with transcendental 
themes. He thoroughly believed in the healing power of music and in 1986 
even lectured on the subject. The instmmentals ‘Spanish Steps’ and ‘Celtic 



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Excavation’ from 1987’s Poetic Champions Compose derive from this period. After 
working with the traditional Irish group The Chieftains in 1988, Morrison 
seemed to find renewed energy in his homeland. ‘Coney Island’ from 1989’s 
Avalon Sunset was a rich sound-poem which married images of coastal weekend 
touring with a lush string setting. Morrison is alone in making simple remi- 
niscences of childhood in Northern Ireland have a profound sonic presence. On 
Hymns To The Silence (1991) the effect was magnificent. ‘Pagan Streams’, with its 
sonorous piano and upright bass, brimmed with exaltation for ‘the silence’. ‘On 
Hyndford Street’ returned to his birthplace with the Ambient sound of a 
synthesizer voiced in hymnal mode, Morrison narrating memories of sounds 
drifting across the Beechie River, days of ice-cream, picking apples, boyhood 
meetings, Radio Luxembourg, Debussy, jazz, Jack Kerouac and ‘being lit up 
inside’. 

LISTENING 

Motown remastered Marvin Gaye’s catalogue for CD in 1993—4. Van Morri- 
son’s catalogue has had many changes. Astral Weeks , released on CD in the 
1980s, is an essential purchase yet much unreleased music from the 1968 sessions 
remains in the Warner Bros, vaults. In the UK, recordings from Tupelo Honey 
(1971) onwards were reissued on remastered CDs by Polydor in 1998, a 
company Morrison had signed to in 1989. 


DAVID BOWIE 

Dazzled by an array of popular images ranging from androgynous 1960s hippie 
to space-age rock god, from glam superstar to cocaine-numbed ‘thin white 
duke’, David Bowie’s critics have often overlooked the substantial effect of his 
music on both musicians and listeners. The ambitious futuristic single ‘Space 
Oddity’ of 1969 ushered in an era of sophisticated pop-single production 
exemplified by the work of the Manchester group lOcc. Comfortable with new 
synthesizer technology, Bowie influenced and was influenced by Kraftwerk. 
Willing to open his music to both Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk in Berlin in 
1976, he settled on the synth drones and tape treatments of Brian Eno to create 
two of the most influential albums in rock, the 1977 duet of Low and Heroes’. 
Influenced by the Minimalism of Philip Glass, these recordings would them- 
selves be reinterpreted by Glass in the 1990s, a decade which saw Bowie once 
more work with Eno and explore Trip-Hop and Ambient Jungle styles of black 
British stars such as Tricky and Goldie. 

Born David Jones in Brixton, London in 1947, David Bowie grew up in the 
south-eastern suburb of Bromley. At school he showed an interest in the 
recorder, choral singing, the ukulele and the piano. He took up the acoustic 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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guitar at ten and, impressively for a left-hander, played it right-handed. A year 
later he attended Bromley Technical College, where he studied art and design. 
Inspired by the free jazz of Charlie Parker, he took lessons on a plastic 
saxophone in the early 1960s. During that decade he involved himself with 
Buddhism and a series of beat groups such as David Jones And The Lower 
Third. As well as an interest in Bob Dylan he was fascinated by the cabaret 
croonery of Anthony Newley and the theatrical mime of America’s Living 
Theatre group. 

Bowie was very much part of the hippie times, and his Beckenham Arts Lab 
of 1969 combined recitations, folk guitars, mime and festivals. Bowie’s break- 
through album, Space Oddity (Philips), was an acoustic-electric package which 
included the moving Tetter To Hermione’, an open declaration of love to a 
ballerina girlfriend. The title track was a huge chart hit in the winter of 1969. 
Produced by Gus Dudgeon at Trident studios, this five-minute wonder was a 
sonic delight which began with Bowie strumming a faded-up twelve-string 
guitar and ended in the swimming sound of stereo-panned, tape-distorted cello. 
The introduction also featured Bowie playing a Stylophone (a simple electrode 
signal- generating device which used a pen to make contacts) while the finale 
had him on kalimba (a type of African thumb piano), whose sharp pitches gave 
the song its weird outer-space feel. Aided by electric guitar harmonics, Rick 
Wakeman’s airy Mellotron, backwards taped piano and guitar sounds, Paul 
Buckmaster’s placing of cello and woodwind, Terry Cox’s splashy drums, 
handclaps and Bowie’s sophisticated approach to both melody and chordal 
development, the song was undoubtedly a classic rock production. 

Though the public would be more interested in his chameleon-like shifting 
persona, Bowie was always interested in the technical details. On The Man Who 
Sold The World (RCA 1971) he availed himself of the sound of a Moog Modular 
synthesizer while the lavish song cycle of Hunky Dory (RCA 1971) also featured 
the keyboard strengths of Rick Wakeman. In 1972 Bowie sat in the producer’s 
chair for former Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed’s Transformer (RCA). He 
and guitarist Mick Ronson were responsible for the filmic reed and string 
arrangements on ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, a hit single memorable for its 
supple double-bass sound. By 1975, when Bowie was living out a cocaine and 
amphetamine-fuelled rock-star existence in Los Angeles, he was still awed by 
the cyclical style of Philip Glass, whom he had witnessed at close quarters 
mesmerize an audience in London in the spring of 1971 with Music With 
Changing Parts. The Minimalist influence can be heard on the chugging- train 
intro of ‘Station To Station’ and the taut repetitions of ‘Golden Years’, both 
recorded in California in 1975. Though the album Station To Station (RCA 
1976) endeared Bowie to black audiences in America its Minimalist undertones 
should not be ignored. 

Filming of the time-warping futuristic Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell 
To Earth followed, during which Bowie considered writing a synthesizer score. 
On the subsequent ‘Station To Station’ tour he played tapes of Kraftwerk and 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


offered them the support slot but they remained reclusive in their Kling Klang 
studio in Diisseldorf. Via Switzerland Bowie eventually settled in West Berlin in 
the autumn of 1976, immersing himself in the music of Kraftwerk, NEU! and 
Cluster. Living in a damp flat in a modest quarter, Bowie was still taking dmgs 
and drinking heavily. Admiring what he termed ‘the timeless music’ of 
Tangerine Dream, he met Edgar Froese for coffee-house summits which 
petered out owing to Froese’s touring commitments. In another part of 
Germany Brian Eno was successfully recording with Cluster. Both Eno and 
Bowie would meet in Conny Plank’s Cologne studio for the beginning of an 
historic partnership. 

Bowie and Eno shared ‘glam-rock’ roots, both had arty backgrounds and 
both liked Philip Glass. Ostensibly, Low (RCA 1977) was produced by old 
Bowie cohort Tony Visconti, who was American and a multi-instrumentalist. 
Sessions were divided between a chateau near Paris and the Hansa studio, near 
the Berlin Wall, during the final quarter of 1976. With some musicians from 
Station To Station and various others, including Iggy Pop, the result was 
electronic rock of a unique vitality. Synthesizers and strange dry drum sounds 
dominated. In album form, Side One was seven short ‘songs’. ‘Speed Of Life’, 
an instrumental, opened the proceedings, Bowie going for broke with a 
descending ARP synthesizer riff. ‘Breaking Glass’ was memorable for its cut- 
off drums and Eno’s fanning MiniMoog surges. The compressed, speeded-up 
‘What In The World’ contained some of Eno’s craziest synth-box machinations. 
‘Sound And Vision’ was almost instrumental, with crooning vocal backing by 
Eno and Bowie and a synthetic drum hiss that would take its place over a decade 
later as the trademark of Techno music. ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ was 
the record’s first masterstroke, a burbling wash of Eno treatments suffused 
around Bowie at his most elegiac. Though uncredited, the diaphanous opening 
of ‘A New Career In A New Town’ would have been unthinkable without 
Eno, its metronomic smothered bass-drum accompaniment a pure antecedent 
to all House music. 

Side Two was four instrumentals which brought Eno and other aspects of 
Minimalism to a mass audience. The first half of the side featured the extensive 
use of the Chamberlain, an early 1960s version of the tape-based Mellotron 
sampling keyboard. ‘Warszawa’ was funereal, an epic soundscape of piano, 
MiniMoog bass rhythm and synth-derived organ and flute melodies. Finely 
textured by Eno, it arced to an upper register caught some minutes in by 
Bowie’s instrumental vocalise, a twist which Eno much admired. ‘Art Decade’ 
had the whiff of Berlin pre-war decadence and was reshaped by Eno during one 
of Bowie’s frequent studio absences. Again it was noticeably slow and melan- 
cholic, synthetic percussion pushing along sad melodies on piano and accom- 
panying treatments with strings and shifting electronic sounds punctuating the 
atmosphere. Both ‘Weeping Wall’ and ‘Subterraneans’ were built from sound- 
track ideas Bowie had for The Man Who Fell To Earth. ‘Weeping Wall’ was a 
stuttering, rhythmic creation with interesting struck percussion, quavering 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


223 


vocalise and the radio-signal sound of an ARP synthesizer. Again the sluggish 
character of ‘Subterraneans’, with its ARP tones, would not have been 
predictable in the Bowie canon without Eno’s intervention. 

The release of Low at the beginning of 1977 saw Bowie enter the elite of the 
avant-garde. In a country where Stockhausen had literally invented electronic 
music, the thirty-year- old Bowie had embraced it with aplomb. The critics 
hated the record but it went to the upper reaches of the UK album charts. 

‘ Heroes’ (RCA 1977) could be seen as an extension album to Low , the pair 
forming one unit. Yet on close inspection there were differences. Recording 
began in the summer of 1977 at Hansa with Bowie on a health-conscious 
exercise kick. Hence the songs on ‘Heroes’ are more defined in their attack, 
having less of the indefinability of much of the contents of Low. Eno became a 
fully fledged band member, credited with synthesizers, keyboards and guitar 
treatments. The division between song and instrumental was more defined. Eno 
used his own Oblique Strategies chance cards to come up with quick results and 
Bowie favoured minimal overdub and retakes. 

The first great moment on ‘Heroes’ was the title track. Here Robert Fripp’s 
oblique guitar was surrounded by a myriad of Eno sounds, with Bowie giving 
the best reedy croon of his career. Impressed by Kraftwerk’s just-released Trans- 
Europe Express, Bowie dedicated the busy ‘V-2 Schneider’ to them, even adding 
Kraftwerk-like synthetic vocals. ‘Sense Of Doubt’ was a death-like dirge for 
piano which included windy synth washes, wobbling, glassy keyboard notes and 
what sounded like Bowie inhaling hard in the background. This was relieved by 
the Eastern promise of ‘Moss Garden’, where Bowie played Japanese koto over 
widescreen Eno treatments and various sound effects. The tranquil atmosphere 
of Bowie’s Buddhist interest could be felt in the gongs, birds and the distant 
sound of an overhead plane. This Ambience was continued into the watery 
eddies of ‘Neukoln’, which concluded in the long, screaming tones of Bowie’s 
alto saxophone. During a period when drug withdrawal and marriage break-up 
threatened his very sanity, Bowie had been rescued and replenished by Eno’s 
Ambient and electronic music. 

LISTENING 

Tired of poor RCA reissues, Bowie had his entire back-catalogue remastered via 
Rykodisc in the US and released on new CDs in 1991. EMI handled the 
catalogue in Europe. Low came with two lost tracks, the sublime lullaby ‘Some 
Are’ and the sharding electronics of ‘All Saints’. Heroes’ included ‘Abdulmajid’ 
(dedicated to Bowie’s Somalian second wife), a brilliant slice of ethno- Am- 
bience. Eno appeared on all three. Heroes’ had been mixed at Mountain Studios 
in Switzerland and there Bowie and Eno reconvened in 1995 to make Outside 
(an album as detective novel) based on similar chance procedures. The proof 
that Low and Heroes’ were ‘landmark recordings’ came when Philip Glass used 
some of their contents to write a series of symphonic movements in his 



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unmistakable Minimal style. Both Low Symphony (1993) and ‘Heroes’ Symphony 
(1997) were released on Glass’s own Point Music label. Aware of the im- 
portance of his instrumental work, in 2001, Bowie released All Saints: Collected 
Instrumentals 1977-1999 (EMI). 


PSYCHEDELIA 

The word ‘psychedelic’ is derived from the Greek and means ‘expanding the 
mind’. It was coined in the early 1950s when the writer Aldous Huxley was 
discussing the nature of mescaline and LSD with a doctor friend of his. A tide of 
psychedelic drugs like mescaline, psilocybin and, most famously, LSD 25 (better 
known as acid) enhanced the production and the perception of rock music during 
the 1960s. Influentially, The Beatles embraced the power of hallucinogenics to 
expand the texture, form and sound of their music. In the studio these dmgs 
allowed producers and musicians to push rock way beyond perceived limitations. 
English writer Chris Cutler has commented: ‘The music was now based on 
repetition, invention and extemporization. It was experimental, progressive and 
based around electric instmments and volume.’ The repetitive element was 
borrowed from the East, thus allowing a greater appreciation of drones and modal 
scales. Hence the ubiquitous presence of Indian instmments such as the dronal 
tambura and modal sitar in psychedelia of the late 1960s. The connection with 
Minimalism, Ambience and the greater use of electronics is obvious. 

Psychedelia was also more than music. It was a new awareness, a spiritual 
transcendence of the everyday, a lifestyle, a religion, a political movement. Its 
roots were not in the 1960s but in the nineteenth century, specifically the world 
of the Decadents, their literature and the Symbolist art movement which grew 
up around them. The dmgs of choice were then opium and hashish, which 
inspired the reveries of such French writers as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Gautier. 
These authors were matched visually by the radiant work of Gustave Moreau, 
whose dream paintings were uniquely psychedelic. In Britain the Christian 
visions of William Blake spurred on the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of young 
idealistic anti-materialist artists who lived the bohemian lifestyle, wore their hair 
long and painted luminous exalted portraits of damsels and knights. Led by 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites directly influenced the visual style 
of English psychedelia in the 1960s. 

Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice In Wonderland , was a friend of Rossetti. He 
too influenced the development of psychedelia, as did countless other nine- 
teenth-century writers, including Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Coleridge and 
Edgar Allan Poe. In the twentieth century it was the turn of Aldous Huxley, 
Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs to evoke the disorientated feel of LSD 
through their literature. After the synthesis of LSD 25 by Albert Hofmann in 
Switzerland in 1938 it would take until the early 1960s for the dmg to become 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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truly influential. When experienced by author Ken Kesey and academic 
Timothy Leary, LSD became a social and spiritual touchstone for a generation. 

The psychedelic effect on rock music differed widely between the US and 
the UK. Carlos Santana once told me: ‘Everybody in San Francisco in the 1960s 
was experimenting with peyote, LSD, mescaline and marijuana. The music was 
known for its merging of Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix and Duke Ellington. The 
hippies were responsible for the elastication of musical taste. Miles Davis learned 
a lot from the San Francisco scene, as can be heard on 1970’s Bitches Brew.’ As 
writer Harry Shapiro has pointed out, the word ‘hippie’ has its origins in African 
language, where it meant ‘someone who has opened his or her eyes’. And no 
group opened more people’s eyes and minds than Jefferson Airplane. One of the 
greatest of San Franciscan bands, the Airplane crystallized the whole psychedelic 
scene with their sparkling 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow (RCA). With two lead 
guitarists in Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen and two lead singers in Grace 
Slick and Marty Balin, they were the business. The album had an electric feel, an 
organic quality born out of communal musicianship and laced with sun- 
refracted ballads and fulsome ecstatic rock. If ‘Embryonic Journey’ was acoustic 
guitar bliss, then the Alice In Won derland-inHuenced ‘White Rabbit’ was nirvana 
as it interwove Ravel, Indian raga and rock in an historic tribute to hallucino- 
genic drugs. 

The work of other San Francisco groups, like The Grateful Dead and 
Quicksilver Messenger Service, is considered later; as is that of their Los Angeles 
peers, like The Byrds, Love and The Doors. Pushed forward by the Beat 
movement of the 1950s, American psychedelia can be broken down into three 
categories. There was the pop psychedelia of, say, The Beach Boys and Buffalo 
Springfield. There was the acid jams of San Franciscan bands like Country Joe 
And The Fish. With much of this music, particularly the latter’s, albums were 
all-important. Then there was the music inspired by the ‘English Invasion’ 
groups like The Beatles and Yardbirds. Taking the three-minute single as their 
cue bands such as The Seeds, The Chocolate Watch Band, The Nazz and The 
Electric Prunes all made wigged-out psychedelic songs. Texan jug-band blues 
outfit The 13th Floor Elevators devoted the entirety of their 1966 International 
Artists debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators, to singing 
the spiritual praises of LSD. The best of this sub-genre was collected by guitarist 
Lenny Kaye on the classic 1972 Elektra compilation Nuggets. 

Psychedelia in the UK was very different, with greater emphasis on the 
seven-inch single as a vehicle for expression. Stylistically it differed in four ways. 
First, rhythm and blues played a greater part, with distorted guitars and loopy 
organs giving the desired psychedelic effect. Secondly, Britain’s connection with 
Asia since the days of Empire meant abundant use of sitars, tamburas, bongo 
drums and other instruments associated with Indian classical music. Thirdly, 
studio effects were exploited as a psychedelic sensitizer, with phasing, backwards 
tapes and other synthetic effects being added to music to make it sound strange 
and trippy. In fact drum, guitar and vocal phasing was much overused in UK 



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psychedelia of the late 1960s. Finally, there was an antiquated aspect of the 
music which drew on things like Victorian musical boxes, carnival sounds and 
music-hall nostalgia. In all it was a strange hybrid. 

In many ways The Beatles covered all the above aspects and more. It was 
under their influence that every major UK group of the 1960s made their 
psychedelic contribution in one form or another. The Yardbirds’ 1966 ‘Hap- 
penings Ten Years Time Ago’ (Columbia) was R&B at 1 OOmph as guitarists Jeff 
Beck and Jimmy Page had the guitar dual of their lives. Cream, The Who, The 
Hollies, The Moody Blues and many others made psychedelic albums but it was 
the lesser-known groups who made the best contributions. Dantalian’s Chariot 
(with future Police guitarist Andy Summers) cut an album for CBS in 1967 full 
of sitar tracks and clever if over-heated psychedelia. At the time only the brilliant 
song ‘Madman Running Through The Fields’ saw the light of day. Tomorrow 
(with future Y es guitarist Steve Howe) recorded the studio-effects masterpiece 
‘My White Bicycle’ for Parlophone in 1967. There were equally brilliant 
contributions from Simon Dupree, Fleur De Lys, Nirvana and Kaleidoscope 
between 1966 and 1968. 

If Pink Floyd and The Jimi Hendrix Experience seemed to vie with The 
Beatles for the moniker of ‘greatest sixties albums band’ there were many other 
groups who made fantastic psychedelic albums. Possibly the finest were The 
Pretty Things, an R&B group from Kent who changed personnel in 1967 to 
record the first psychedelic rock opera, S. F. Sorrow (Columbia 1968). Full of 
images of war, the album charted a young man’s life from birth to death, with 
Dick Taylor’s guitar and Norman Smith’s ambitious production pushing the 
music along at a cracking pace. Unsurprisingly, the album was recorded in 
Abbey Road at the same time as The Beatles and Pink Floyd were recording Sgt. 
Pepper and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Having learned much during the 
making of S. F. Sorrow , The Pretty Things then produced Parachute (Harvest 
1970), which featured a spatial, almost Ambient, production sheen. From the 
sound of falling rain to the unnerving dissolving pitch of its final forty seconds, 
Parachute was nothing less than astonishing. 

Though often associated with the multicoloured sitar-laden 1967 singles ‘Paper 
Sun’ and ‘Hole In My Shoe’ Traffic were from the off committed to album- 
making. Hailing from the Birmingham area, they were a democratic unit where 
the ideas of Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi all held 
sway. Six months were spent in a cottage in Berkshire jamming a mixture of sitar, 
flute, sax, guitars, Hammond organ and percussion. Spending five times the 
normal budget, the group worked with Jimi Hendrix’s engineer Eddie Kramer at 
Olympic Studios in London to make Mr Fantasy (Island 1967). This debut album 
was memorable for its dizzying array of clockwork sounds, Indian music, ballad, 
jazz improvisation and superlative guitar-rock songs. Without a doubt the group 
were sonically influenced by their friend Jimi Hendrix. 

Traffic’s guitarist and sitarist Dave Mason also produced Family’s Music In A 
Doll’s House (Reprise 1968). A quintessential UK psychedelic album, it featured 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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strings, brass, reeds, guitars, sitar and much else. It sounded as antiquated as its 
cover looked, with the strangled vocal of Roger Chapman adding much colour. 
Most obvious was its use of phasing — not surprising as it was recorded with the 
technique’s inventors, George Chkiantz and Eddie Kramer. Even though it was 
done at Olympic on four- track, the album had a huge range - medieval music, 
guitar rock, wistful acoustic ballads, rhythm and blues, choral music, keyboard 
instrumentals, violin-led progressive rock, sitar music and even the British 
national anthem, which closed the album in chaotic fashion. 

Certainly there was a feeling of light-heartedness and whimsy in UK 
psychedelia that was only discernible in the garage -band equivalent in America. 
Uniquely, Syd Barrett was capable of straddling the Atlantic divide for he 
injected the early Pink Floyd singles with the necessary humour and was capable 
of lengthy Grateful Dead-style extemporization in his ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. 
(Soft Machine followed the Floyd’s free-wheeling groove but were more jazz- 
oriented.) Even after the 1960s, psychedelia had a place in British hearts. In 1980 
the Cambridge quartet The Soft Boys recorded a modern pop psychedelic 
masterpiece in Underwater Moonlight. Their leader, Robyn Hitchcock, went on 
to make a series of psychedelic-influenced solo albums. Another pop group, 
XTC, formed The Dukes Of Stratosphear, whose Virgin creations 25 O' Clock 
and Psonic Psunspot of the late 1980s summed up what was best in UK 
psychedelia. Even in the 1990s such sitar-drone acoustic recordings as Magic 
Carpet (Mushroom 1972) by a London collective led by Alisha were still finding 
new audiences. 

LISTENING 

Jefferson Airplane were honoured by a sumptuous three-CD boxed set in 1992 
titled Jefferson Airplane Loves You (BMG/RCA). The US edition of Surrealistic 
Pillow got a first-time UK CD issue in 1998. One often-overlooked San 
Francisco group was It’s A Beautiful Day, led by violinist David La Flamme. 
Their mellifluous, mantra-like music could be heard on the albums IPs A 
Beautiful Day (1968) and Marrying Maiden 1969), reissued as a single Columbia 
disc in 1998. The original Nuggets album has had many reissues, the most 
extravagant being the 1998 Rykodisc boxed-set with ninety-one extra tracks! 
Of the more eccentric American garage -band- type psychedelia the most 
interesting came from The 13th Floor Elevators and The Electric Prunes. 
Albums such as The Elevators’ The Psychedelic Sounds Of The Thirteenth Floor 
Elevators (1966j and Easter Everywhere (1968) and The Prunes’ 1967—68 trilogy I 
Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night), Underground and Mass In F Minor (yes, a 
psychedelic mass!) are worth tracking down on any format or label. Singular 
praise must given to Californian Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) for his 1967 
recording ‘Electricity’, one of the earliest composed psychedelic songs and one 
that featured a Theremin! Beefheart’s strange, multi-phased, improvisatory acid 
music can be best assimilated by hearing Strictly Personal (Liberty 1968). 



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THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


In the UK there has always been a proliferation of psychedelic records. The 
Moody Blues’ In Search Of The Lost Chord , reissued on Deram CD in 1986, even 
had a tribute to Timothy Leary. Dantalian’s Chariot’s only album was finally 
issued on disc by Wooden Hall in 1996. Tomorrow’s self-titled 1967 album 
came out on See For Miles in 1991. Kaleidoscope had much of their late-60s 
music compiled into Dive Into Yesterday (Fontana 1997). The Pretty Things’ S. 
F. Sorrow and Parachute were reissued by Edsel in the late 1980s, with new 
editions coming out on labels like Snapper Music in the late 90s. Some of 
Traffic’s best music was lovingly anthologized in the 1991 Island set Smiling 
Phases. Their psychedelic debut, Mr Fantasy , was remastered for CD issue in 
1999. Family’s Music In A Doll’s House appeared on a new See For Miles CD in 
1998. Two great latter-day psychedelic CDs are The Dukes Of Stratosphear’s 
Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (Virgin 1987) and The Soft Boys’ Underwater 
Moonlight (Rykodisc 1992). 


THE BYRDS 

When The Byrds recorded the chiming ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ in Los Angeles 
in January of 1965 they set forth on a journey which would change the history 
of rock sound. In their Chicago-born leader Roger McGuinn they had a 
musician who was unafraid to exploit electronics and absorb them into a musical 
vision which embraced folk-rock, raga-rock, jet-rock and eventually space- 
rock. In fact The Byrds made Columbia’s ‘360-Sound’ logo a reality with their 
dizzying Rickenbacker guitar effects and stereophonic phasing. One of the first 
mainstream rock musicians to endorse the Moog synthesizer, Roger McGuinn 
purchased one from Beaver & Krause directly after the Monterey International 
Pop Festival of 1967. But it’s the legacy of their 1960s recordings, culminating in 
the symphonic psychedelia of The Notorious Byrd Brothers in 1968, that so 
radically altered the landscape of rock. 

The Byrds’ original instrumental prowess came from the fact that they had 
their roots in folk and bluegrass outfits like The New Christy Minstrels and Les 
Baxter’s Balladeers. Initially Jim ‘Roger’ McGuinn, singer-writer Gene Clark 
and melodious vocalist and twelve-string rhythm guitarist David Crosby were 
the acoustic threesome The Jet Set. With the addition of mandolin-playing 
Chris Hillman and boyishly beautiful drummer Michael Clarke a quintet was 
born who set out to emulate The Beatles. Early material was recorded at World 
Pacific studios, and one number, ‘The Airport Song’, trademarked the ethereal 
and stylish instrumental style of the group. After a recommendation to 
Columbia by master trumpeter Miles Davis, The Jet Set were signed and 
changed their name to The Byrds. 

Everything about them was inspired by The Beatles’ 1964 film A Hard Day’s 
Night — including their haircuts and the fact that Roger McGuinn bought his 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar and Clarke his Ludwig drum kit after seeing 
The Beatles playing the instruments on screen. An admiration for Bob Dylan 
made them choose, with producer Terry Melcher, the song ‘Mr Tambourine 
Man’ as their debut. Cut in January 1965 with session musicians, the version 
featured the glorious tri-part double-tracked harmonies of McGuinn, Clark and 
Crosby plus the ringing sound of McGuinn’s Rickenbacker strummed in the 
‘plagal cadences’ of Gregorian chant. This incredibly sweet melodious sound 
became a transatlantic number-one smash and The Byrds were airborne. 

The group quickly entered the pop fray with the debut album Mr Tambourine 
Man , but it was their second disc of 1965, Turn! Turn! Turn!, which really cut 
the mustard. The title track had its roots in choral litany and drew on the classical 
structures of Bach. Gene Clark’s mellifluous ballads were endorsed by The 
Beatles, especially ‘Set You Free This Time’. His ‘If You’re Gone’ involved the 
use of harmonies as drone. Having experimented with LSD, The Byrds were 
already trying out new instrumental structures. 

It must be remembered that the group were very much a ‘pop rock’ 
phenomenon who were pressured to innovate within the format of the single. 
Over time they were recognized as an albums band. After taking LSD with The 
Beatles and smoking copious amounts of marijuana in both the US and the UK, 
The Byrds were now turning their attention to the modal musical landscapes of 
John Coltrane’s meditative classic A Love Supreme (Impulse 1964) and the sitar 
improvisations of Ravi Shankar. Recorded in two different studios in two bursts 
at the end of 1965 and the beginning of 1966, ‘Eight Miles High’/‘Why’ was an 
extraordinary achievement. McGuinn soaked up the sound of Coltrane on his 
Rickenbacker for the mesmeric drug song ‘Eight Miles High’, which seemed to 
float on the interlocking flashing guitars of McGuinn and Crosby. ‘Why’ saw 
McGuinn put his guitar through a walkie-talkie speaker to get an hallucinogenic 
trance-like effect. In fact backwards tape and much other studio trickery was 
used by McGuinn and Co. to make this single combination one of psychedelia’s 
greatest achievements on its release in the spring of 1966. 

Ironically, people thought the sitar was all over the ‘raga-rock’ of those songs 
and others on the album Fifth Dimension, released in the summer of 1966. But 
throughout both Crosby and McGuinn achieved bending, distorted guitar 
sounds on their own electric instruments and on ‘2-4-2’ they actually recorded 
the sound of a Lear Jet as a form of tribute to their early days of gazing at planes 
at LA’s Airport Boulevard, under runway twenty-five. By 1967 The Byrds were 
in full flight under producer Gary Usher. Younger Than Yesterday, released that 
spring, was an embarrassment of riches and saw David Crosby’s plangent style of 
composition for guitar and voice reach full glory on the exquisite ballad 
‘Everybody’s Been Burned’. Roger McGuinn emulated Karlheinz Stockhausen 
on ‘CTA-102’, an electronic rollercoaster ride which utilized oscillator, dis- 
sonant piano and microphone distortion, while backwards-taped guitars fea- 
tured heavily on both ‘Thoughts And Words’ and ‘Mind Gardens’. 

After the band lost Gene Clark (apparently from fear of flying) in 1966, the 



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recording of their masterpiece The Notorious Byrd Brothers in the latter half of 
1967 also saw the departure of David Crosby and Michael Clarke owing to in- 
fighting. The album is a continuous play cycle where songs bleed into one 
another, spectacular sound effects and sonic fidelity its hallmark. Chris Hillman’s 
‘Natural Harmony’ was drenched in Moog synthesizer, ‘Draft Morning’ a 
wondrously smooth ride on Hillman’s bass and jingle-jangle guitars plus vocal 
harmonies which protested against Vietnam and all wars through use of 
electronically modified sound effects. In fact the album had an orchestral 
quality, magnified by the use of harp, celesta and cello on the plaintive 
childhood reverie ballad ‘Goin’ Back’, written by the Brill Building song- 
factory duo Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Another Goffin-King creation, 
‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’, with its flowing guitar phasing, became associated 
with the 1969 hippie film Easy Rider. 

In fact the latter song featured country-guitar specialist Clarence White, who 
would go on to grace The Byrds with his Stringbender, an electronic mod- 
ification which allowed an electric Fender to have the quality of a pedal-steel 
guitar. The raga-like ‘Change Is Now’ from Notorious is full of White’s sharp 
attack. A harpsichord appears on ‘Old John Robertson’ and guitars are made to 
sound like other things on both ‘Change Is Now’ and ‘Dolphin’s Smile’. The 
album reached its zenith on the synthesizer and guitar sound-effects soup ‘Space 
Odyssey’, where The Byrds seem to wave goodbye as they sonically journey to 
outer space. In essence The Byrds were the first electronic pop group who 
didn’t just use technology to sound better but made electric sounds the very 
nature of their exploration. 

LISTENING 

The Byrds’ extensive Columbia discography has always been in print. After The 
Notorious Byrd Brothers they met Gram Parsons and discovered country-rock 
until the whole thing fizzled out in 1971. One album, Untitled (1970), sparked a 
return to form, with ‘Chestnut Mare’ quoting Bach on its wonderful acoustic 
middle section and ‘Well Come Back Home’ featuring Buddhist chant. Its inner 
sleeve portrayed founding member Roger McGuinn at home in front of his 
trusty Moog synth, which he used extensively on the ecological ‘Hungry 
Planet’. 

The Byrds were one of the first to get the boxed-set, remastered treatment. 
The four-CD The Byrds (CBS 1990) is still considered a classic. In 1996 
Columbia began reissuing the original albums in deluxe disc versions with 
bonus tracks. Fifth Dimension contained earlier versions of ‘Eight Miles High’/ 
‘Why’. Younger Than Yesterday included the hypnotic acoustic Crosby song ‘It 
Happens Each Day’. The best, as ever, was The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which 
included ‘Moog Raga’, McGuinn playing Indian music on his Moog and 
‘Triad’, the Crosby ballad which supposedly broke up the original band. 
Included at the end of the instrumental ‘Universal Mind Decoder’ is a ‘secret’ 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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track featuring an intense band argument during the recording of ‘Natural 
Harmony’ which illuminates Crosby’s departure. 

Early 2000 saw the release of 12 Dimensions: The Columbia Recordings 1965— 
1972 , a collectors’ CD box containing latter-day Byrds albums, including 
Untitled (which came with a bonus disc of unreleased tracks, Unissued) and a 
‘lost’ live album, At The Fillmore 1969. 


LOVE AND THE DOORS 

Two Californian groups, whose wonderfully packaged Los Angeles psychedelic 
rock sound was first captured by the fledgling Elektra label in 1966, epitomized 
some of the coolest-sounding Ambient rock of the late 1960s. The timelessness 
of some of their best music comes down to an understanding of sound 
organization and the curious blend of influences from bossa nova to Bach that 
percolated through it. Scored for acoustic guitars and cushioned in a wonderful 
string and brass arrangement, Love’s Forever Changes (1967) is now considered 
one of the finest achievements of the psychedelic era. Equally fabulous are the 
literary ballads of The Doors, whose classically trained keyboardist Ray 
Manzarek brought a rigorous discipline to the music, nowhere better observed 
than in ‘Riders On The Storm’ (1971). 

The very first Love song I ever heard was Bryan Maclean’s ‘Softly To Me’, 
with its rising strummed guitar intro and mantric repetitive candy-coloured 
rhythm which was lightly tinged with the sound of Latin America. It was 
sweet, light, lovely but totally original. That was the essence of Love — the 
intersecting of two originals in Arthur Lee and Bryan Maclean. The first was 
black and from Memphis and bom in 1945 but moved to Los Angeles when he 
was five. Always hell-bent on rock ’n’ roll, he ended up producing an early 
session for Jimi Hendrix in 1964. By 1965 he had seen The Byrds and met a 
roadie of theirs, Bryan Maclean, who was from an affluent white background 
and was interested in orchestral American music like that of George Gershwin. 
Lee had been playing with the excellent black guitarist Johnny Echols, who 
favoured a small double-necked Gibson guitar and even a customized double- 
necked instrument with twelve strings on top and six on the bottom. His speedy 
hammer-on left-handed style and use of distortion would define the strange 
sound of Love’s occasional guitar breaks. 

Initially Lee’s smooth vocal style was suited to Burt Bacharach and you can hear it 
on the first album, Love , recorded at Sunset Sound in January 1966. The mercuriaUy 
talented Lee could also play piano, rhythm guitar, harmonica and even drums when 
needs must. Included in the rush of R&B-inspired rock songs were such balladic 
gems as Lee’s poignant ‘A Message To Pretty’ and Maclean’s aforementioned ‘Softly 
To Me’. In the autumn of 1966 Love recorded Da Capo at RCA Victor studios, an 
album spmced up with gorgeous jazz and Latin- American flavours, including the 



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sounds of flute and harpsichord. Live, they had an awesome electric reputation but 
on parts of Da Capo they were making miniature acoustic masterpieces. Maclean’s 
‘Orange Skies’, sung by Lee, was so subtly arranged that one writer described it as 
‘psychedelic Muzak’. In fact one acoustic pocket symphony, ‘The Castle’, was used 
subsequently as television theme music. 

Having lived communally and been open to a mixture of heroin and LSD, it’s 
incredible that Love ever recorded Forever Changes at all. With trusty old Bmce 
Botnick at the controls, Arthur Lee and Bryan Maclean began recording the disc at 
Sunset Sound with session musicians in the summer of 1 967 . Even Neil Y oung was 
considering as producer but only got as far as arranging ‘The Daily Planet’. This 
galvanized the rest of the group into action over a series of short sessions in late 
summer and early autumn of 1967. One of the last songs to be recorded was the 
fulsome opener ‘Alone Again Or’, written by Maclean and sung by both him and 
Arthur Lee with a fantastic meshing of Hispanic acoustic guitar flourish and the 
famous Mexicana horns. David Angel added a seven-man string and five-man horn 
section to arrangements Maclean and Lee had made after the album was com- 
pleted. The ballads ‘Andmoreagain’ and ‘Old Man’ were dappled with pure 
Californian sunshine while the orchestral dynamic of ‘Good Humour Man’ (a 
song from 1965 originally titled ‘Hummingbirds’) and ‘You Set The Scene’ make 
the album still sound contemporary. The precise placing ofinstmments and voices 
made Forever Changes the equivalent of psychedelic Vermeer. 

So much has been written about The Doors that most of it obfuscates the 
music itself. Jim Morrison was born in Florida in 1 943 and came from a naval 
family. Highly educated, he attended several Florida colleges before ending up 
in 1964 at UCLA’s film school, where he met Chicago-born Ray Manzarek. 
The latter had a classical education, an economics degree and played a lot of 
piano. Also studying at the film school, Manzarek eventually got a Master’s 
degree. The two met again on Venice Beach in 1965 and decided to form The 
Doors. The rest is history, as they say, with Morrison ending up in Pere Lachaise 
cemetery, having taken French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud’s ideal of the 
‘systematic derangement of the senses’ to the farthest human extreme. 

The Doors were signed to Elektra in the summer of 1966 after Love’s Arthur 
Lee persuaded the label’s founder, Jac Holzman, to check out the demonic 
Doors at the infamous Whisky A Go Go. Once the svengali had witnessed the 
shamanic ritual of ‘The End’ with John Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger 
(both from LA) extending out Indo-classical improvisations in sound, the 
group’s fortune was made. Their debut album, The Doors , recorded at Sunset 
Sound, was released in January 1967 to much acclaim. ‘The Crystal Ship’ had a 
haunting poetic quality urged on by Manzarek’s ‘Bach-like organ solo’ and 
‘Light My Fire’ used repetition between Krieger’s wispy guitar and Manzarek’s 
cloudy organ to convey a Grand Guignol effect. The eleven- and- a-half-minute 
‘The End’ topped off the whole theatrical event. 

More soundtrack, more thoughtful was Strange Days , recorded in the summer 
of 1967 with Paul Rothchild again in attendance. There was a liquid, semi- 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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hallucinogenic quality to this record, as evidenced by Krieger’s use of wavering 
bottle-neck guitar sound. It included the first Doors song, penned in 1965, 
‘Moonlight Drive’, and the extraordinary ‘I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind’, 
where Manzarek played marimba and described its glistening haze ‘as a languid, 
oriental Bolero’. This languid Latino feel continued on 1968’s Waiting For The 
Sun , especially on ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’. Flamenco guitar featured on 
‘Spanish Caravan’ and ‘Yes, The River Knows’ succumbed to the cool sound of 
West Coast jazz. 

Because bass figures were played by Manzarek with his left hand The Doors’ 
sound was always in the high register. (Manzarek famously played a Vox 
Continental organ with plastic keys with the addition of a Fender Rhodes piano 
bass. Halfway through Waiting For The Sun he switched to a Gibson combo 
organ which included a wide variety of sound- altering devices. Its flat top could 
still accommodate his Fender Rhodes piano bass.) Densmore’s drumming thus 
veered towards percussion rather than mere rhythm. It’s not surprising that the 
group recorded Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor in 1968 and went for more 
orchestration. On their last album, L.A. Woman, recorded in 1970, they 
effectively caught the ‘mysterious ambiance’, to quote Densmore, of their 
surroundings in the incredible ‘Riders On The Storm’, where rain and thunder, 
whispered vocal and that tremulous electric piano sound combined to make an 
instmmental performance of rare Ambient potency. 

LISTENING 

Love’s best music can be found on all manner of compilation discs. The best are 
Comes In Colours, a 1992 Raven item compiled by Love expert John Tobler, and 
the essential Love Story (Rhino 1995), a two-disc set which includes the entire 
Forever Changes album, digitally remastered. Michael Stuart’s Ambient dram- 
ming on the latter disc is one of the many highlights of Arthur Lee’s inspired 
production technique on one of rock’s evergreen classics. 

The Doors are amply served on disc, though the moments I’ve highlighted 
are to be gleaned from the individual recordings. Elektra’s soundtrack to Oliver 
Stone’s 1991 film The Doors is a good place to start. In 1978 a Jim Morrison 
album, An American Prayer, was put together to convey Morrison’s cinematic 
and poetic vision. Elements of this, like ‘The Hitchhiker’, make for a warped 
kind of noirish soundtrack. It was reissued on CD in 1995 with bonus tracks. 
The rarities-packed four-CD Doors Box Set (Elektra 1997) is for fans only. 


THE WEST COAST POP ART EXPERIMENTAL BAND 


The weird and wonderful LA group The West Coast Pop Art Experimental 
Band appeared on the scene in 1966 amid a blaze of publicity. Live, they were 



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considered to work with ‘incredible crescendos of sound . . . sustained walls of 
sound that seemed to have a physical presence in the room’. On Sunset Strip, at 
the time, they were regarded in some quarters as one of ‘the weirdest most 
original man-made sensations’ in experimental rock. Over three albums they 
pushed their sound so far out that by A Child's Guide To Good And Evil (1968) 
they were following John Cage’s dictum and working with total silence! 

The Pop Arts, or Artex as they became known, was the brainchild of Bob 
Markley, who opted out of his oil-rich Oklahoman family to work as a musician 
in LA. In 1964 he met Shaun and Danny Harris, bass- and guitar-playing 
brothers whose parents were both classical musicians. They started out as The 
Snowmen and had a hit record but by 1966 they were The West Coast Pop Art 
Experimental Band. Their blond surfing good looks drew lots of attention as 
they played up and down the Strip, but their first Reprise album, Part 1, 
recorded in 1966, contained music of real originality. After opening with 
mingling psychedelic guitars, it then chartered areas such as Lo-Fi and the 
baroque as well as the usual chiming Byrds and Beatlesy harmonies of the time. 

Breaking Through— Vol. 2 (1967) was better recorded. It combined a Monkees 
craziness with biting social and political satire, the latter most overt on ‘Suppose 
They Give A War And Nobody Comes’. Trance and raga moods were all there 
on the lengthy Ambience of ‘Smell Of Incense’, with its cascading strings and 
guitars. Their third album, A Child's Guide To Good And Evil (1968), was their 
most bizarre and benefited from exploration of multi-track recording. Amid the 
spoof-horror sounds, tape manipulations, ironic jests (‘Eighteen Is Over The 
Hill’), and genuine political jibes (‘Until The Poorest People Have Money To 
Spend’, on welfare equality, and ‘A Child Of A Few Hours Is Burning To 
Death’, on the Vietnam war) there was a real sense of musical adventure. At 
times the album was sleepily Minimalist and in the tour-de-force ‘Anniversary 
Of World War 3’ — the empty crackling grooves of the vinyl itself was the 
music. Overlooked and almost forgotten for decades, today The West Coast 
Pop Art Experimental Band are considered everything their name implied. 

LISTENING 

The original trio of 1960s Reprise albums are now highly collectable gems of 
their era. Sundazed began a comprehensive reissue programme of their music on 
CD in the autumn of 1997, drawing the critical response ‘brilliant’. 


NEIL YOUNG, BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD 
AND CROSBY, STILLS & NASH 


The 1960s and 70s have left no better artefacts in recorded sound than the work 
of those musicians who seemed to orbit around the maverick vision and 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


235 


quivering voice of Neil Young. By the time that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 
were recording in 1969 the general view was that they were privileged 
Californian hippie musicians coasting on the back of successful band careers. 
Yet the actual reasons for the huge success of Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969), 
Young’s subsequent solo recordings and the respect still awarded to the early 
Buffalo Springfield albums is the fact that they pushed recorded music into a 
new level of definition and complexity. 

With their four-part harmonies and intertwining triple guitar sound which 
mixed folk music with ‘electronalia’, Buffalo Springfield made music of such 
dynamism that in the late 1990s it was sampled by Hip-Hop musicians. 
Springfield was the product of a 1966 meeting between Neil Young and 
Stephen Stills, famously in a Los Angeles traffic jam when Stills spotted Young’s 
black hearse! Young was bom in Ontario in 1945 and suffered from polio in the 
1950s. After moving around Canada with a series of bands like The Squires and 
The Mynah Birds, Young and the classically trained bassist Bmce Palmer headed 
for California in 1966. Stephen Stills was bom in 1945 in Dallas, went to 
military academy in Florida and spent time in Costa Rica and New Orleans in 
the early 1960s. In New York in 1964 he met the clear tenor singer Richie 
Furay. This quartet crossed paths in the famous traffic jam of 1966 and 
immediately formed Buffalo Springfield with the addition of Dewey Martin, 
another Canadian, on dmms, their name taken from a Toledo, Ohio, steam- 
roller company. 

The chemistry gelled as they played the famous LA music club the Whisky A 
Go Go and they were quickly signed to Atlantic Records. Tor What It’s 
Worth’, penned by Stills when high on peyote, was recorded at Columbia’s 
eight-track facility at the close of 1966 and is famous for its close-miked 
thumping bass-drum sound and Young’s ringing harmonic guitar notes. That 
year also saw them recording at Gold Star, a four-track facility Young favoured 
because of its associations with ‘pop’ sound pioneers Phil Spector and The 
Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. 

If their debut album, Buffalo Springfield (1966), caught the euphoric msh of 
their talent, it also saw Young’s growing disillusionment with psychedelia, as 
evinced on Tlying On The Ground Is Wrong’, an anti-drug song. Young, with 
his childhood polio and now chronic epilepsy mingled with diabetes, was closed 
physically to the overt excesses of 60s rock. Almost solipsistic, Young sought out 
the help of the Michigan-born arranger Jack Nitzsche to flesh out his ever-more 
complex ideas. Young’s interest was in ‘airy drums, drums more like a sound 
effect’. As he worked alone with Nitzsche he was even asked to produce Love’s 
Forever Changes, and got as far as arranging ‘The Daily Planet’ before turning 
back to his own work in the summer of 1967. The result was the incredible 
sound collage ‘Expecting To Fly’, orchestrated by Nitzsche and overdubbed by 
Young and Bruce Botnick over three weeks. It used double-tracked acoustic 
and electric pianos, rising tonal orchestral introduction and stereophonic 
panning. 



236 


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If that was over three and a half minutes of sonic bliss, then at nearly twice the 
length ‘Broken Arrow’ was an overt tribute to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, replete 
with Beatles screams at the beginning. Recorded in three different movements 
with fairground sounds and jazz instrumentals thrown in for good measure, the 
miniature epic seemed to put Young’s own paranoia over fame plumb in the 
middle of historical Americana, with his favoured American Indian as a central 
motif. One hundred hours of studio time went into that one. 

And these were only two cuts from Buffalo Springfield Again (1967), the 
quintessential Springfield album, recorded in three studios that year. Other 
highlights were Stills’s flat-picked acoustic guitar showcase ‘Bluebird’ and 
‘Everydays’, the latter inspired by Miles Davis, played in 3/4 time and featuring 
Young sustaining a low, fuzz-toned guitar note throughout. The album was 
topped off by the elegiac and slow Richie Furay song ‘Sad Memory’, again 
made sonically interesting by Young’s use of deep reverb echo. 

Fierce competition drove the group apart and their posthumous album Last 
Time Around (1968) was disowned by Young, though it contained some strong 
material, including a clutch of fabulous countryesque ballads by Furay. One 
critic referred to it as the sound of ‘soft summer rain’. Young signed to Reprise 
in late 1968 and continued his experiments with Jack Nitzsche and producer 
David Briggs. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, Stephen Stills had teamed up with 
former Byrd David Crosby and Graham Nash of the UK group The Hollies. 
Together they made ‘air mixes’ with their ‘locked-in harmonies’. With the 
cream of Laurel Canyon musicians in attendance the trio made an album of 
thick acoustic guitar tones, backwards guitar effects, electric organ and the 
purest of pure harmonic blends. The twelve-string sound and floating flavour of 
‘Guinnevere’ was just one of the many delights of Crosby , Stills & Nash (1969). 

Soon Neil Young joined them and Deja vu (1970) was recorded over 800 
hours in Wally Heider’s San Francisco studio in late 1969. A disjointed affair, it 
nevertheless benefited from a fantastic production sound, acoustic instruments 
being placed in clear sound hierarchies. Again with Jack Nitzsche’s help, Young 
came up with the complex organ-driven ‘Country Girl’ while his ‘Helpless’, a 
reminiscence of Ontario, was recorded in the early hours at almost slow-motion 
speed. Back in Los Angeles, Young would then team up with Crazy Horse to 
make music like the trance-inducing ‘Down By The River’ (1968), which 
Young sometimes extrapolated out in concert to half an hour. 

Young’s career from here on in would be split between electric guitar 
duelling with Crazy Horse and other bands, complex studio designs and 
straight-ahead acoustic music. After The Goldrush (1970) seemed to mix these 
styles as Jack Nitzsche helped out — the album’s acoustic title track and the 
spacious ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ were in contrast to the incendiary 
‘Southern Man’. Yet, as in his brilliant guitar solo there, Young never dropped 
into the cliched riffing style of many of his rock contemporaries. Always his cue 
was the making of original sound experiences. 

Back problems and related health blips did not stop Y oung recording Harvest 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA. 


237 


(1972) in London, Nashville and on his Californian ranch during the latter part 
of 1971. The album again mixed guitar rock with acoustic gems and Nitzschean 
orchestration. Topping both album and singles charts in 1972, this made Young 
a superstar. Since then Young has never stopped recording, changing styles and 
generally confounding his admirers. His best album ever, the bitter On The 
Beach (1974), took years to gain CD release. On Zuma (1975) Young recorded 
his greatest piece of Ambiosonics, the slow, torturous but endlessly fascinating 
electric-guitar meditation on the plight of the ancient Aztecs, ‘Cortez The 
Killer’. 

Another fascinating track from the same period was ‘Like A Hurricane’ (not 
released until 1977), which again saw Young extend guitar melody into the 
upper reaches of noise and feedback without losing the listener’s interest. After a 
period of confusion when at one point he was sued by his record company for 
making ‘uncommercial music’, Young returned to his old form on Freedom 
(1989). In 1991 he released Arc-Weld , a two-and-a-half-hour journey into the 
sonic outreaches of Neil Young live with Crazy Horse, including half an hour 
of instrumental free-form noise inspired by Sonic Youth. In 1992 the ever- 
mercurial Young changed tack again with the belated sequel to Harvest in 
Harvest Moon , with Jack Nitzsche in tow. A natural outflowing of four decades 
of sound exploration was Young’s 1996 collaboration with the American film- 
maker Jim Jarmusch. Recorded on a mobile studio in San Francisco, Young 
played pump organ, detuned piano, acoustic guitar and distorted, effect-laden 
electric guitar for the soundtrack to Dead Man , an hour-long Ambient master- 
work. 

LISTENING 

There have been many Buffalo Springfield compilations on Atlantic and all the 
original records are available on disc. Buffalo Springfield Again (At co 1967) is 
essential. Both Crosby y Stills & Nash (1969) and Deja Vu (1970) got the Ocean 
View digitally remastered treatment in 1995 and are available on Atlantic. Neil 
Young’s catalogue is vast, though incomplete on CD. Decade (Reprise 1977) 
was a brilliant personal triple-album overview handpicked by Y oung himself. As 
well as containing ‘Expecting To Fly’ and ‘Broken Arrow’ from the Springfield 
days it also weighed in with ‘Cortez The Killer’ and ‘Like A Hurricane’ on one 
record side. Its repackaging on to double CD in 1996 was a welcome reminder 
of Young’s huge contribution to rock. Other mentioned recordings are on 
Reprise except Dead Man , which came out on Vapor Records in 1996. Since 
1988 Young has been working on an almost mythical series of boxed sets 
intended to showcase a wealth of unreleased material. Young appears on David 
Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name (Atlantic 1971) alongside what 
sounds like the entire Airplane-Dead San Francisco music fraternity in a 
commendable sound experiment. 



238 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


SPIRIT 

The sublime music of the LA band Spirit stood the test of time to be reappraised 
in the 1990s as ‘classic’. They even blueprinted the chord sequence for the most 
successful acoustic rock song of all time, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’. I 
wrote in 1992 about Spirit that ‘there was something timeless about hearing this 
mixture of jazz, pop and rock’. Spirit mixed subtlety with taste, classical with 
jazz, vocal with instrumental. Their take on psychedelia was not a heady msh 
but thoughtful arranging, suites of songs edited together to make sound-films, 
and impeccable musicianship extending melodic arrangements to outer terri- 
tories. To listen to a Spirit album was to take a journey into a music of 
unexpected twists and sound flourishes. With their fourth album, The Twelve 
Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus , they seized on studio and synthesizer technology to 
produce some of the most futuristic music of the period. 

Randy California had met Jimi Hendrix in 1966 when trying out Fender 
Strats at a guitar shop in New York. California joined Hendrix’s group for six 
months before the Seattle man’s supernova transfer to London. California, still 
in his early teens, moved back to the West Coast and at a 1967 LA ‘love-in’ 
formed Spirit’s Rebellious with his stepfather Ed Cassidy, Mark Andes and Jay 
Ferguson. Cassidy was a veteran jazz drummer with an interest in Latin and 
avant-garde music, Andes a blues-loving bassist and Ferguson a classically trained 
all-round musician with a talent for writing. With the addition of keyboardist 
John Locke the band were signed in 1967 and immediately set about getting ‘a 
pure and crystalline sound’ in the studio. 

Living in a big yellow house in Topanga Canyon, the group committed 
themselves totally to music. Lou Adler, who’d signed them to his Ode label, 
went for a light touch and Spirit (1968) is the airiest of psychedelic records of 
the time. Each track was different and a jazzy undertow sprinkled itself 
throughout. Even the use of sitar was tasteful and restrained. On ‘Taurus’ (the 
only California composition), flute, strings and harpsichord cushioned a 
wonderful descending acoustic chord sequence. On a subsequent European 
tour the group met Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who appreciated this 
arrangement no end. Three years later it would resurface as the intro to the 
legendary ‘Stairway To Heaven’. 

Influenced by The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and much of the experimentation in 
West Coast music of the times, Spirit pushed in two directions — rock-single 
success and more complex albums. The second 1968 album, The Family That 
Plays Together , featured on Side One a suite of songs mostly credited to ace 
arranger Jay Ferguson. Here the classical flavour of ‘Taurus’ was spread through 
a series of imagistic filmic compositions. Elsewhere the group successfully placed 
one song inside another (‘Dream Within A Dream’) and became interested in 
background music. In fact a lot of instrumental music was recorded — Ferguson’s 
considerable keyboard skills intertwining with Locke’s piano, Cassidy’s subtle 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


239 


drumming and California’s linear electric-guitar playing, which seemed to hum 
on one note for ever. 

Unsurprisingly, the group were asked to score a film, Jacques Demy’s The 
Model Shop, in which they appeared. Having already tried their hand at Ambient 
music, they wrote more for the film, some of it quite jazzy, some of it exquisitely 
beautiful. Pieces like ‘Ice’ and ‘Clear’ seemed to stand time still, so considered 
was their unfolding. The best of it was to surface on the subsequent album, Clear 
(1969). But Spirit wanted to produce a rock masterpiece and to this end 
recruited Neil Young producer David Briggs to work on their next project 

In 1970 five months were spent in Sound City Studios experimenting with 
Moog synthesizer, reverse tape sounds, close-miked acoustic guitars and pipe 
organ. Briggs brought the suitable width of screen to a group who always 
painted their music as soundtrack. Both ‘Space Child’ and ‘Love Has Found A 
Way’ utilized the Moog synth in an imaginative way while the continual use of 
song-merging made for an eventful listening experience. For example, the 
appearance of the short, mantra-like acoustic jewel ‘Why Can’t I Be Free’ is still 
an arresting experience to this day. The Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus was 
unveiled in the winter of 1970 to an indifferent public. Despite two tours and 
much publicity, Spirit disbanded in 1971. Over time people began to appreciate 
the advanced electronic feel of Sardonicus. By the late 1970s it had sold over half 
a million copies and today is considered a rock classic. 

LISTENING 

In 1991 Epic/Legacy released the two-disc set Time Circle , which admirably 
charts the band’s career. Including instrumental out-takes from 1968 like ‘Fog’ 
and unreleased soundtrack material from the film The Model Shop, it’s a good 
entry point. More impressive is the selection of Epic/Legacy remastered discs 
released in 1996. All came with unreleased tracks and generous sleeve notes. The 
Family That Plays Together (1968) is particularly impressive. The sequence which 
begins with ‘It Shall Be’ and continues through ‘Poor Richard’ /‘Silky Sam’/ 
‘Drunkard’ /‘Darling If’ has the quality of classical music. It also contains a 
generous amount of instrumental music penned at the time. Clear (1969) 
continues the trend, its poetic ‘Give A Life, Take A Life’ so perfectly realized 
that it could have come from Brian Wilson or Lennon and McCartney at their 
peak. The Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus (1970) was so well produced it still 
holds the power to startle. 


TIM BUCKLEY 


This American singer-songwriter travelled from folk to the very outer reaches of 
experimentation with the constant ambition to capture the ‘mood’. From the late 



240 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


1960s to the early 1970s Buckley used mostly acoustic instruments and a five-and- 
a-half-octave voice to create some of the most compelling experiences in ‘song’ 
ever put to tape. Such recordings as Happy Sad (1968) and Blue Afternoon (1969) 
conjure up such extreme moods of presence it’s as if the sound of the music itself is 
the lived experience. Even though he flirted with rock, jazz and avant-garde it’s 
his cool style of minimal improvisation that best sums up his genius. 

Buckley was bom in Washington DC in 1947. He arrived in California when 
he was ten and later began playing folk and country guitar in various Los 
Angeles clubs. Through a connection with freak rocker Frank Zappa, he was 
signed to Elektra and recorded an album at the tender age of nineteen. By 1967 
he was playing in New York and even attracting the attention of The Beatles 
with his lithe twelve-string guitar style and a voice which could move from 
baritone through tenor and upwards. His melancholic style was best heard on 
the baroque folk-rock masterpiece Goodbye And Hello, recorded that summer in 
LA with musical stalwarts Lee Underwood on guitar and C. C. Collins on 
congas. ‘Hallucinations’ was pure dreamy, effect-laden Ambient psychedelia. 
‘Once I Was’ presaged the dense acoustic sound of Neil Young while ‘Morning 
Glory’ was a chamber icon of rare angelic intensity. 

Happy Sad (1968) veered away from the instrumental lushness of its pre- 
decessor, but kept to the nucleus of Buckley, Underwood and Collins with added 
vibraphone and marimba by David Friedman and Johnny Miller’s acoustic bass. 
‘Strange Feeling’ seemed to float on its gossamer, jazz-tinged groove, the overall 
vibe of the record being one of brooding melancholy. ‘Love From Room 109 At 
The Islander On Pacific Coast Highway’ opened with the sounds of crashing 
waves and through its lengthy arrangement emerged the sound of desolation. 
With its moody cover shot of Buckley, Happy Sad was aural reality blues of a 
unique frankness. It is still my favourite Buckley album of all time. 

Buckley’s next recording, Blue Afternoon (1969), which appeared on his 
manager’s Straight label, was a more playful selection with shorter songs. It still 
had the ensemble feel and the brooding, introspective melody but it was 
delivered with a certain buoyancy. One track, ‘Cafe’, was stillness itself, a slow- 
motion fog of languidly plucked guitar and aching vocal. Lorca (1970) began the 
avant-garde experiments with voice and electronically coloured instrumenta- 
tion which would reach their zenith on the difficult Starsailor (1971). Yet the 
best piece on Lorca was the deliberately meditative, raga-like ‘Driftin’’. Unable 
to settle down to one style, Buckley dallied with rock, easy listening and soul 
until in 1975 he accidentally overdosed after a concert in Dallas, Texas. 

LISTENING 

All the Elektra albums were reissued on CD in the late 1980s. Goodbye And Hello 
and Happy Sad are particularly recommended. Blue Afternoon came out on 
Rhino CD in 1989. Two excellent live documents catch Buckley at the height 
of his powers in his early twenties. Dream Letter — Live In London 1968 (Demon 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


241 


1990) covers the early Elektra period. As a single-disc introduction, Live At The 
Troubadour 1969 (Edsel 1994) is a fantastic opener, containing excellent material 
from Happy Sad , Blue Afternoon and the career pinnacle, the majestic ‘Driftin’’ 
from his final Elektra album, Lorca (1970). One of the finest versions of a 
Buckley song, ‘Song To The Siren’, was recorded by The Cocteau Twins and 
appears on the This Mortal Coil album It'll End In Tears (4 AD 1984). A fabulous 
acoustic performance of this song by Buckley appeared on the fine two— CD 
retrospective Morning Glory (Elektra 2001). 


THE GRATEFUL DEAD 

Of all the experimental rock groups to emerge from San Francisco during the 
psychedelic 1960s, the one to stand the test of time and connect directly with 
the Techno and Rave culture of the 80s and 90s was The Grateful Dead. Much 
misunderstood, especially during the late-70s punk-rock explosion, The Grate- 
ful Dead did more than any other collective to bring the ideas of Cage and 
Stockhausen to a new generation. Moreover their studio experiments went far 
beyond the pop format of The Beatles in that they pushed the very sonic 
experience to the limits. They seized on every kind of equipment possible and 
in the best electronic tradition, remodelled it to create even newer sounds. 
Whether on record or live, The Grateful Dead created a spatial dimension 
where electronic and Ambient music sounded right, and years before the very 
notion became mainstream parlance in the 1990s. 

It is no accident that any history of the San Franciscan music scene of the 
1960s only ever gives you glimpses of The Dead. So woven into the very fabric 
of American psychedelia were they that they are the backdrop for everything 
else happening around them. Their Beat-generation connections, their associa- 
tion with LSD and author Ken Kesey, their Haight- Ashbury home, their 
lengthy improvisatory interstellar sets led by Jerry Garcia’s liquid Gibson guitar 
solos, their drug busts and very lifestyle have all passed into legend. The fact that 
The Dead entered the 1970s more than $200,000 in debt to Warner Bros, didn’t 
bother them one jot. What was important was the music; as Jerry Garcia put it, 
‘the search for the form that follows chaos!’. 

The form was born out of a mixture of blues, rock ’n’ roll, Gospel, jug-band 
folk, soul, Miles Davis-John Coltrane jazz and the electronic mindscapes of 
Stockhausen. The pure musicianship of Jerry Garcia, bom in 1942, met the 
composerly Phil Lesh, bom two years earlier, in San Francisco in 1958 and a 
bond was made for life. Garcia played folk guitar from the age of fifteen and after 
nine months in the US Army dropped out in 1959. Lesh graduated, could play 
violin and studied classical tmmpet and composition at Mills College in Oakland 
with the Italian composer Luciano Berio. Yet the modal explorations of 
Coltrane fired his imagination. 



242 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


After the army Garcia enrolled in San Mateo College, played coffee-houses 
and worked in a music shop. He soon met poet Robert Hunter (whose 
windowpane lyrics would surface on later Dead albums), young rhythm guitarist 
Bob Weir, bluesy organist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan and percussionist Bill 
Kreutzmann. Interest was in acoustic music and Garcia went through a series of 
combinations under crazy names such as The Harte Valley Drifters (with 
Hunter) and then Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. By 1965 the 
group were an electric band called The Warlocks with Phil Lesh on electric bass. 
They became the band for a range of ‘Acid Tests’ conducted at Stanford 
University. In 1966 Garcia changed their name to The Grateful Dead and until 
October of that year, when LSD became illegal, they were the number-one 
group of inner-space exploration. They became synonymous with the Acid 
Tests of Ken Kesey and His Merry Pranksters and made a connection with Neal 
Cassady, who drove the Pranksters’ psychedelicized bus and was the real hero of 
Jack Kerouac’s Beat novel On The Road . As Jerry Garcia noted: ‘We could 
experiment freely.’ 

The open chemical experimentation of the Acid Tests, where light-shows, 
music and drugs were mixed freely, were the whole template for the US 
psychedelic experience. Here the essence of psychedelia was a communal 
alternative, the reaching of another level of consciousness which together 
could form a viable alternative to the strictures of American government 
and authority. And The Dead were its soundtrack. Here their extended 
pro to -Ambient jams, which evoked Arabic calligraphy as much as the influence 
of Minimalism and pure electronic music, were bom. 

By the summer of 1966 The Dead were fully ensconced in a rambling 
Victorian mansion at 710 Ashbury Street. They played for free, anywhere they 
could, even setting up their equipment on flat-back tmcks and jamming away 
for whoever would listen. Eventually they drew the crowds, up to 20,000 at a 
time. Their equipment was fine-tuned by Augustus Owsley Stanley III, one of 
the most famous acid chemists in America. In 1967 Warner Bros, signed the 
band and put them in a four- track studio to make an album of rock and blues in 
a matter of days. Except for the affecting version of Tim Rose’s ‘Morning Dew’ 
and the accelerated instmmental of ‘Viola Lee Blues’, the band mostly disowned 
the album, simply titled The Grateful Dead. Come late 1967 the Asia-oriented 
dmmmer Mickey Hart and the pianist Tom Constanten had joined the group. 
Constanten had also studied with Berio at Mills College, knew Phil Lesh and 
had an energetic interest in experimental music. Aptly, after graduation, he went 
to Europe to study with Boulez and Stockhausen. Now seven, the group would 
make one of the most daring moves in rock history. 

For their next album, Anthem Of The Sun (1968), they wanted something 
which caught the magic moments of their live sets where instrumentally they 
would fly off into the sonic ether. They also wanted more quality. With Warner 
Bros, producer Dave Hassinger they had visited eight-track studios in LA and 
New York in late 1967 to record takes but only got as far as parts for three tracks 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


243 


before demands by Lesh and Weir to record the sound of ‘heavy and thin air’ 
drove Hassinger from the production seat. Assisted by engineer Dan Healy, who 
had helped convert a studio to eight-track in North Beach, San Francisco, The 
Dead aimed to combine live tracks from a tour of the Pacific North-West with 
studio material. 

This was painstakingly done through the first half of 1968, when the group 
literally played the studio as an instmment. Huge technical problems were 
presented by the use of different tape machines and different four-track mixers 
at different gigs. All these had to be hand-synched by Dan Healy to the studio 
multi-tracks. Constanten came in and converted a piano, using gyroscopes, 
coins and suchlike, to a ‘prepared’ instmment a la Cage. Bob Weir aimed at 
getting Stockhausen’s ‘coloured silence’ out of the tapes. Such unlikely sounds 
as those of backwards piano and tympani were also incorporated. After months 
of jump-cuts, drop-ins and cross-fades the group ended up with two continuous 
eight- track edits. Then Lesh, Healy and Garcia manually mixed them for two 
distinct performances on album. So complex was the whole process (aided by 
the use of laughing gas and other dmgs) that Garcia likened it to ‘a collage — an 
approach that was more like electronic or concrete music’. 

For Aoxomoxoa (1969) The Dead used new Ampex sixteen-track recording 
for a more enhanced sound. They alternated between lysergic delicacies like 
‘Rosemary’ and ‘Mountains Of The Moon’ to experiments in phasing and 
filtering exemplified by the seriously weird ‘What’s Become Of The Baby’. 
Again Constanten’s classically flavoured harpsichord and keyboards enhanced 
the sound no end. For their most famous album, Live /Dead (1969), the group 
took a number of stellar performances from the spring of 1969 at Fillmore West 
and the Avalon Ballroom and edited them into one continuous sequence of 
music. ‘Dark Star’ was masterly - over twenty-three minutes Garcia’s spiky 
guitar eddies traced a composition that had much to do with raga and Ambience 
and which at times burst into intense psychedelic climaxes. So descriptive was 
‘Dark Star’ of an LSD trip that the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni used 
an edit of the piece, plus some beautiful warbly Garcia guitar instrumentals, for 
his rapturous 1970 hippie film Zabriskie Point. 

The further adventures of The Grateful Dead are the stuff of social history and 
legend. In 1970 the group survived huge debts and embezzlement, not to 
mention the loss of Hart and Constanten, to record two acoustically mellow 
albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Their European tour of 1972 
yielded a terrific album which in its later stages ably showcased how brilliant an 
Ambient music group The Grateful Dead could be — Garcia’s cellular, additive, 
flashing guitar solos propelled by Lesh’s deep, thick bass runs and the deftest of 
percussion ensembles. Even the death of Pigpen in 1973 did not stop them 
becoming one of the most successful live bands of all time, by 1974 sporting a 
‘wall-of-sound’, twenty-five-ton, 641 -speaker stack. In 1978 they even per- 
formed at the pyramids of Giza during a total eclipse of the sun. Their reputation 
for live musical improvisation just drew more and more crowds. From 1984 



244 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


onwards they earned more from live concerts than any other rock group on the 
planet save The Rolling Stones. After they had an MTV hit with ‘Touch Of 
Grey’ in 1987 they became even more successful. But after selling millions of 
records and playing to millions of people, Captain Trips himself, Jerry Garcia, 
died suddenly of a heart attack in the summer of 1995. It was noted, at the time, 
that Eric Clapton considered him to be ‘the greatest guitarist in popular music’. 

The Grateful Dead truly embodied the spirit of America. It’s no coincidence 
that from the very start the American flag, with its stars and stripes, was an 
important ingredient in the band’s imagery. Their anti- establishment stance was 
religiously sincere — it spoke eloquently in a music that mixed everything but 
served itself. (In 1983 the group even established the Rex Foundation, which 
gave handsome donations to experimental composers.) The essence of The 
Dead is in the instrumental Ambience of such albums as Live /Dead and Europe 
'12. In 1988 Sonic Youth (then flying the flag of noise-rock) stated that The 
Dead were the only group they really wanted to play with. The Dead 
encouraged bootlegging and saw music as ‘something to be given away to 
those who couldn’t afford to pay for it’. As revolutionary psychedelians their 
experience was a late-twentieth-century mirroring of the entire Acid House and 
Techno-Rave culture and the music of such groupings as Spiritualized. In tmth 
The Grateful Dead are a fundamental of how music evolved in the rock era. 

LISTENING 

The Grateful Dead were one of the first groups to benefit from CD technology. 
The remastering of Live /Dead in 1989 at last allowed the listener to hear the 
seamless flow of ‘Dark Star’, ‘St. Stephen’, ‘The Eleven’ and ‘Turn On Your 
Love Light’, which before had been broken down to three album sides. This 
1969 Warner Bros, album is definitely the first port of call for the uninitiated. 
From the hallucinatory acid flashes of the incredible ‘Dark Star’ to the intense 
11/4 time shifts of ‘The Eleven’ and onwards into the deep blues of ‘Death 
Don’t Have No Mercy’ and feedback electro nica of ‘Feedback’, this is The 
Dead in excelsis. 

Other ports of call are the densely layered psychedelia of Anthem Of The Sun 
(Warner Bros. 1968) and the baroque-flavoured Aoxomoxoa (Warner Bros. 
1969). Unforgettable are the Hunter lines ‘lady finger dipped in moonlight, 
writing “what for” across the morning sky’ from the latter’s opening cut, ‘St. 
Stephen’. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty (both Warner Bros. 1970) are 
acoustic jewels. Jerry Garcia himself combined electronica with country ballads 
on his first solo album, Garcia (Warner Bros. 1972), and Phil Lesh explored bio- 
electronics on the album Seastones (Round 1975). Seastones became something 
of a curio as it featured Ned Lagin playing a Buchla-innovated digital-poly- 
phonic synth and a digital computer, both firsts. Lesh played an electronic 
Alembic bass and even Garcia appeared with treated guitar. Lagin, a graduate of 
MIT, described it as ‘cybernetic biomusic’. Rykodisc put Seastones on CD in the 




Gustav Mahler in 1907, the year he became Erik Satie in a portrait taken in 1918, the 

Musical Director of the Metropolitan Opera, year of his ‘static sound decor’ Socrates. 

New York. 



Claude Debussy, a 
true visionary of 
universal Ambient 
music, contemplates 
the dawn of the 



Influenced and influencer: Brian Eno with 
Ambient guru John Cage, London, 1985. 


Leon Theremin, demonstrating his ingenious 
hands-free ‘ether wave’ electronic instrument, 


London, 1927. 





The coolly elegant Miles Davis in 1956, a year before he began making orchestral jazz 
recordings with arranger Gil Evans. 



Robert Moog in 1998, proudly displaying 
the most significant ‘compact performance 

evthpeiTPr’ p\tpt irwpnt-prl hie 1 Q7D IVhni IV/lnnrr 


A smiling Terry Riley on the cover of his 
1969 hit album of electro nica A Rainbow In 

C uympA Air 



7/ ^>-?i tu'itkf/ (. '/n ‘ 




Eno playing the classic VCS3 synthesizer 
during an open-air concert with Roxy 
Music, London, summer 1972. 


Steve Reich in 1987, the year his early 
‘phase-shifting’ music was reissued by 
Nonesuch. 


Philip Glass in 1989, at the time the highest- Keith Jar re tt. While on ECM the pianist v 

paid Minimalist in America, following his responsible for breaking down barriers 

daily routine of writing music with pencil between jazz, classical and popular music, 

and naner. 




Californian Harold Budd, possibly the Jon Hassell in the early 1980s, as his ‘Fourth 

world’s finest Ambient keyboard composer, World’ music concept was reaching fruition, 
pictured in the late 1980s. 



Michael Nyman in 1985, the composer- John Adams, the cross-pollinating 

musician who coined the word ‘Minimalism’. Minimalist, in 1989 after the worldwide 

success of his onera Nixon In China. 




r ears after their 






The Beatles, summer 1968, just before the 
release of The White Album, in Paul 
McCartney’s Japanese outhouse, St John’s 
Wood, London. 


Jimi Hendrix in California, summer 1969, a 
few months before his legendary Woodstock 
performance. 


1 , 

■ W» . ' 

■ ft 




Ravi Shankar, India’s most famous sitarist, had a profound impact on Western musicians from 

nrl- „ td — i.1 „ „ r ' '1 a t t . „ J nn_ _l 




Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico in quintessential Velvet Underground reunion mode, 
Paris, January 1972. 



Space-rock pioneers The Byrds in 1965, a 
photograph used later on the rarities albun 
Never Before. 


CM 


David Bowie, the consummate European in 
1977, sporting the bomber- jacket style of 
‘Heroes’. 




David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, live in the 
1970s. His chiming guitar solos would 




a 


] .. j 3 — 






English multi-instrumentalist Can, live in 1974, the most electrifying German rock 

Mike Oldfield at the piano. group of all time. From left: Holger Czukay, Jaki 

In 1973 his Tubular Bells was Liebezeit, Michael Karoli and Irmin Schmidt, 

considered ‘the future of music’. 


Tangerine Dream touring Phaedra in Europe 1974-5: Peter Baumann, Edgar Froese and 
Christoph Franke at the controls. 






Kraftwerk in their Kling Klang Studio in Diisseldorf: the vintage line-up of Bartos, Schneider, 
Flur and Hiitter which recorded Trans-Europe Express in 1976. 


Jean-Michel Jarre, 1986, accompanied by dry ice 
and a luminous circular keyboard for his 
‘Rendez-Vous’ spectaculars. 


Elizabeth Fraser, the ethereal voice 
of her generation, with The Cocteau 
Twins, London, 1993. 




The audacious and dazzling film composer 
Ennio Morricone, conducting a score in a 
1987 promo shot. 



Laurie Anderson, the world’s best-known 
performance artist, playing her trademark 
electric violin during the 1980s. 



David Sylvian (left) goes all Ambient with Holger Czukay in 1988. 




The uniquely brilliant Donna Summer, who 
turned Disco to Techno in the late 1970s. 


Enya, high priestess of Ambient, finds peace 
in the Irish countryside in the late 1980s. 



Frankie Knuckles, New York-born but the Derrick May, the intellectual figurehead of 
undisputed innovator of Chicago House. Detroit Techno. 



The Stone Roses in 19 
reinventing rock for th 
Acid House generation 
From left: Ian Brown, 
John Squire, Mani 
Mounfield and Reni 
Wren. 





The Orb reach number one in the UK. Alex Frankfurt’s Ambient Techno supremo Pete 
Paterson and Thrash Weston in 1992, the Namlook in his studio surrounded by 

year of U.F.Orb. analogue synthesizers, circa 1994. 








Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. His Jamaican Dub Moby in 1999, Ambient Techno’s 

innovations of the 1970s are still first multi-million selling superstar, 

reverberating throughout music. 


A young William Orbit in the late 1980s, 
before he plunged into progressive House, 
Trance and producing Madonna. 


Goldie, whose ‘time-stretching’ orchestral 
take on Drum and Bass made him an 
Ambient star in 1995. 


-• 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


245 


early 1990s as well as Ambient field recordings by Mickey Hart, who had 
studied Indian percussion with Ravi Shankar’s tabla player, Alla Rakha. 

There are so many Dead discs on the market only the really knowledgeable 
know what to choose. Those looking for the more experimental electronic side 
should listen to Infrared Roses (Grateful Dead 1991) and Grayfolded (1995). The 
first is a collection of Tree music’ from various concerts, those passages where the 
group plunges totally into free improvisation. The latter is an awesome two-disc 
remix of almost every version of ‘Dark Star’ The Dead have ever played by 
Canadian ‘plunderphonics’ expert John Oswald. In contrast, anyone who wants 
the best distinct example of Garcia’s crystal-sweet guitar lines should hear the 
Zabriskie Point Soundtrack (Rhino 1997) for its ‘Dark Star’ excerpt and ‘Love 
Scene’ solo guitar adagio. But the essence of The Dead is live. Nobody can fault 
the free-flowing genius of the instrumental stream which follows ‘Truckin’’ at 
the Lyceum in London on Europe y 12 (Warner Bros.). A 1968 show from the 
Shrine Auditorium came out in 1992 as Two From The Vault and again 
benchmarked The Dead as an incredible live psychedelic experience. One 
disc highlighted the Live /Dead material (the segue from ‘The Eleven’ to ‘Death 
Don’t Have No Mercy’ is simply wondrous) and the other took in material from 
Anthem Of The Sun while also including ‘Morning Dew’ from the first album. 
After that a series of live sound-board recordings titled ‘Dick’s Picks’ were 
released by Grateful Dead Records, Vol 4 (1996) and Vol. 8 (1998) both 
highlighting the band at its peak in 1970. 

In 1999 came what many considered the impossible — a Grateful Dead boxed 
set. Compiled from the best sources by Dead scholars and friends of the band, So 
Many Roads (1965—1995) (Arista) was, incredibly, a five-CD package of 
unreleased live and studio material including the transcendental instrumental 
‘Beautiful Jam’. Then in 2001 Wamers/Rhino released The Golden Road (1966- 
1973), a definitive twelve-CD box including seven hours of unreleased music. 


COUNTRY JOE AND THE FISH 

One of the wildest psychedelic groups of the American 1960s, Country Joe And 
The Fish were part political agenda, part acid rock. In their best music they fused 
an almost classical sense to their hallucinogenic sound, which many consider to 
be to the closest thing to aural LSD ever put to tape. They certainly understood 
that raga-style instrumentals, which washed the ears with sound, conveyed and 
enhanced the feeling of mind expansion. 

The linchpins of the group were writer-singer Joe McDonald and guitarist 
Barry Melton. It has been noted that their bond grew out of similar backgrounds, 
most importantly that both had leftist fathers who had been persecuted by the 
FBI. McDonald was bom in California in the 1940s and studied trombone and 
played in orchestras. He then took up guitar and while still a teenager spent four 



246 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


years in the US Navy in Japan. A return to college led him to Berkeley and a 
meeting with Melton. They recorded the first protest-full ‘Rag Baby’ EP in 1965 
and after calling themselves the Instant Action Jug Band became the electric 
Country Joe And The Fish in honour of China’s Mao Tse-Tung! 

Now with additional organist, drummer and bass player, Country Joe And 
The Fish cut a second ‘Rag Baby’ EP early in 1966. This was definitive Berkeley 
Bay Area psychedelia of the times. ‘Section 43’ was an undulating instrumental 
derived from Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg while ‘Bass Strings’ was a 
dreamlike paean to all hallucinogenics. At the time the band liked to perform 
them high on the natural psychotropic mescaline. They were the central 
compositions of their debut album for Vanguard, Electric Music For The Mind 
And Body (1967), a recording notable for its effective use of electric organ and 
variable electric-guitar sounds courtesy of Barry Melton and David Cohen. 

Having recorded their debut in Berkeley, The Fish and their producer, Sam 
Charteris, went to New York to record I-Feel-Fike-Tm-Fixin’-To-Die, also 
released in 1967. Again the group flawlessly mixed political sentiment with 
appealingly decorative composing. ‘Pat’s Song’ included tasteful use of bells; the 
translucent ‘Magoo’ involved the sound of a thunderstorm; ‘Jams’, McDonald’s 
tribute to his lover Janis Joplin, featured harpsichord. The finale was even more 
breathtaking — Barry Melton and David Cohen playing raga-like electric guitars 
to Chicken Hirsh’s military drumming on ‘Eastern Jam’. Then the instrumental 
outro continued into ‘Colors For Susan’, where simple chords were strummed 
to decay and then repeated, embellished here and there by percussion and bells. 

By 1968 The Fish were using expletives in their songs and generally getting 
up the noses of the establishment. On Together their anarchic nature produced a 
confusing album which only recalled past glories in its closing moments. In 1969 
they were heroes of Woodstock but their fourth album, Here We Are Again , 
sounded distracted. With only McDonald and Melton left of the original group 
a final effort, C.J. Fish (1970), bid farewell to one of the great American groups 
of the 1960s in a return to form with country tinges. 

LISTENING 

All the original Vanguard albums were put to disc in 1992. Even the ‘Rag Baby’ 
EPs surfaced on a Sequel disc around the same time. These first recordings, 
made between 1965 and the late 1960s, are considered some of the purest 
psychedelic music ever to come out of the Bay Area. The first two albums, 
Electric Music For The Mind And Body and I-Feel-Fike-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die (both 
1967) are quintessential recordings, essential listening for anybody interested in 
the history of sound or psychedelic rock. The finale of Electric Music , ‘Grace’, 
sounds as though it was recorded in the desert at night, as water and other sound 
effects drip through the production. 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


247 


H. P. LOVECRAFT 

A perfect example of a 1960s group who captured the pure essence of 
psychedelia and made music which was wholly American in its inspiration. 
By drawing on the literate Gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and fusing it with 
a ritualistic synaesthetic music, they produced in H. P. Lovecraft 2 (1968) one of 
the great classics of the genre. Moreover this vertiginous, effect-laden sound 
ably communicated the lysergic experience in more than just personal terms. 
The very sonic experience of H. P. Lovecraft 2 was a trip in itself and an able 
pointer to what Ambience in the rock era could achieve. 

H. P. Lovecraft were the brainchild of George Edwards and Dave Michaels, 
two Chicago musicians who had strong experience of the mid-1960s beat-rock 
scene. Edwards had even played with the Texan guitarist Steve Miller. They put 
together a five-piece group based on intense vocal harmonies, a mixture of 
keyboards and rhythm guitars and textured percussion. Their name was derived 
from the reclusive Rhode Island writer of fantastic horror fiction, Howard 
Phillips Lovecraft (1890—1937), whose 1931 novella At The Mountains Of 
Madness is still considered a Gothic masterpiece. 

H. P. Lovecraft’s first album was recorded in Chicago in 1967 and drew 
immediately on their namesake’s writing by including a long, dreamy song, 
‘The White Ship’, based on a Lovecraft short story. Moreover the use of 
harpsichord, clarinet, recorder, tympani and other orchestral instruments 
showed that the group were as interested in texture as in sound. A move to 
the West Coast in the spring of 1968 prompted the loss of former Shadows Of 
Knight guitarist Jerry McGeorge. 

In California, H. P. Lovecraft fully immersed themselves in the psychedelic 
subculture, performing and recording while tripping on LSD. Live, San 
Francisco became their favourite stomping ground and they were apt to play 
Billy Wheeler’s ‘High Flying Bird’, which had become a staple of Bay Area 
bands like Jefferson Airplane. But on record they were a different proposition. 
H. P. Lovecraft 2 saw them find an aural space which married the dramatic terror 
of Gothic fiction with some of the cleverest psychedelia ever put to disc. The 
album ranges from gossamer sound effects (‘Electrallentando’), through hippie 
reverie (‘Mobius Trip’) and psychological disturbance (‘Nothing’s Boy’) to 
climax at the shore of the fantastical soundtrack ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ 
- as great a homage, in form as well as content, as you will hear to any writer 
living or dead. 

LISTENING 

For years the music of H. P. Lovecraft was a legend which could only be bought 
on the original Philips Records label for exorbitant prices. In 1988 Edsel 
released in the UK a handsome double-album package, At The Mountains Of 



248 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Madness , which featured their first two records in the original psychedelic sleeve 
of their debut with bonus tracks. In mid-2000 they arrived on a Collectors’ 
Choice CD. Listeners must be warned of the variety of the material contained 
therein. The first album mixes folk styles with Ambient nuggets like ‘The White 
Ship’ and ‘That’s How Much I Love You Baby’. The great H. P. Lovecraft 2 
(1968) lures you into a song and then scene-shifts in such a cinematic way that 
the intended sense of disorientation actually occurs. 


QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE 

If any group could attest to capturing the intense American psychedelic sound at 
its most distilled, it has to be Quicksilver Messenger Service. They were a bunch 
of urban cowboys who lived the hippie dream and played themselves into 
oblivion but not before leaving two fascinating documents of the era, full of 
electric instrumentals drenched in the modal jazz of Miles Davis and shifting 
time signatures of Dave Brubeck. Their story reads likes a picaresque novel of 
seduction, drug busts, near escapes and fantastic music. Yet in Happy Trails 
(1969) they devised a whole album side of twin-guitar improvisation which still 
stands up today. The very nature of Gary Duncan and John Cipollina’s traded 
instrumentals on Bo Diddley’s vamping ‘Who Do You Love’ are at once 
psychedelic and Ambient. 

Formed in North Beach, San Francisco in 1965, Quicksilver Messenger 
Service were Gary Duncan (guitar, vocals), Dino Valenti (guitar, vocals), John 
Cipollina (guitar), David Freiberg (bass, vocals) and Greg Elmore (drums). The 
name was astrological in source: all five shared birth signs and some shared 
birthdays. Valenti was soon imprisoned for possessing marijuana. The others 
soldiered on in much poverty, playing live and living in various shacks and even 
a farm in Marin County. Incidents with teenage girls and band squabbles did not 
stop the band honing their sound in live performance, making a impressive 
debuts at Fillmore West and the Avalon Ballroom in 1966. 

With producer Nick Gravenites Quicksilver attempted to capture their 
alchemical live sound on record. Most important was Cipollina’s acidy and 
piercingly clear Gibson guitar, which used a lot of trembling on the whammy 
bar. After two uproarious attempts, Quicksilver Messenger Service arrived in the 
summer of 1968 and revealed a wonderful fluidity, particularly on the jazz- 
inflected ‘Gold And Silver’. 

Following a US tour, the group and their very young families compiled a 
‘live’ treasure-trove at Golden State Recorders titled Happy Trails — its moniker 
inspired by the George Hunter album-cover painting of a psychedelicized 
horseman waving his girl goodbye in the old West. A classic of aesthetics and 
content, the choked clean guitar style of Duncan was ably matched by 
Cipollina’s shivery approach. Freiberg’s plopping propulsive bass and Elmore’s 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


249 


finely deployed, almost-jazz drumming rounded off one of the most impressive 
forays into San Franciscan psychedelia ever captured on tape. 

Sadly too much gun-play, drugs, ego battles and the return of Dino Valenti at 
the end of the 1960s caused havoc. Slowly Quicksilver lost its key members, first 
Duncan in 1969, then Cipollina in 1970. The early 1970s saw a slimmed-down 
group recording with Valenti in Hawaii but the days of Happy Trails were over. 
In retrospect Quicksilver Messenger Service acted out the existential acid 
experiences of LSD as an organic unit. Once shorn of the camaraderie that 
came with youthful poverty, the heightened live experience of the times and 
the intense competition of their guitarists, the band couldn’t possible relive 
history. 

LISTENING 

Capitol in the US and BGO in the UK have seen fit to reissue the original LPs 
on disc. Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968) is embroidered with fine playing, 
from the liquid intimacy of ‘Pride Of Man’ to the tour-de-force time-changes 
of ‘Gold And Silver’ (inspired by Dave Brubeck’s evergreen early-60s jazz classic 
‘Take Five’ )and concluding with the psychedelic suite ‘The Fool’. Happy Trails 
(1969) still sounds fantastic on LP — a testament to its production and the band’s 
musicality on stage. A nerve-tingling experience, the wonderfully smooth 
entrance of Gary Duncan’s guitar solo on ‘When You Love’ is still breathtaking 
today. Other tracks, like ‘Maiden Of The Cancer Moon’ and ‘Calvary’, evince 
pure sound exploration and are in essence the LSD experience as sonic 
adventure. 


THE STEVE MILLER BAND 

One of the most innovative groups of the 1960s and the only one to come out 
of the San Francisco psychedelic scene to fully explore the potential of multi- 
track recording was The Steve Miller Band, whose ambitious singer-guitarist 
leader ably survived to make high-fidelity rock over three decades. Though an 
interest in blues, soul and outright rock ’n’ roll has been a major focus of his 
career, Miller has always embraced technology to enhance the Ambience of his 
sound. His 1968 albums Children Of The Future and Sailor are both considered 
sonic milestones, while his embrace of polyphonic synthesis on 1976’s Fly Like 
An Eagle makes for one of the most memorable top-flight sounds of the rock 
era. 

Miller was bom in Wisconsin in 1943 but raised in Texas. He was a middle- 
class kid, his father a doctor and violinist who loved tape recorders. His mother 
was a singer. Early on he was introduced to the innovations of Les Paul and by 
the age of five was playing guitar. As a child he also met the innovative jazz 



250 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


bassist Charlie Mingus. At a private school in Dallas he formed his first group 
with another singer-guitarist, Boz Scaggs, when he was only twelve. Miller’s life 
from then on was a series of bands and gigs — white soul at Wisconsin University, 
gigging with blues heroes like T-Bone Walker at night, then on to Chicago and 
gigs with bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. 

Here was a prodigy who loved to play but who also liked sound. Ending up as 
a studio engineer in Tucson, Miller felt San Francisco offered the best 
opportunity for advancement. In late 1966 he arrived at Haight- Ashbury 
and put together a group at Berkeley University which included Scaggs. In 
no time at all they were playing the ballrooms and by the spring of 1967 Miller 
was extemporizing modal ragas on his guitar live! The quality of his musicians, 
like bassist Lonnie Turner and drummer Tim Davis, was so high that they were 
signed to Capitol Records in 1968 for a huge advance. At once Miller went to 
London to hire the services of Beatles engineer Glyn Johns. 

The first album, Children Of The Future (1968), was in terms of production, the 
best-sounding debut from any San Francisco band extant. Its first side comprised 
a suite of songs linked by extensive use of studio-enhanced effects. In parts it 
sounded like the Farfisa organ-led music of Pink Floyd, in others like film 
soundtrack. Its second side opened with Scaggs’s harpsichord ballad ‘Baby’s 
Calling Me Home’ and concluded with more typical rock and blues material. 
Everything was segued, the finale ‘Key To The Highway’ an Ambient treatment 
of the Big Bill Broonzy blues more faithful than Eric Clapton could ever be. 

Not missing a beat, Miller immediately brought Johns to California to record 
the astonishing Sailor, also in 1968, still considered the most advanced rock 
album of the 1960s after Sgt. Pepper. Opening with an Ambient collage of 
foghorn, keyboard and lush guitars, the soundscape pirouetted into ‘Dear Mary’, 
with its rain, choir-like Miller vocal, treated drums and Beatlesy ‘Penny Lane’- 
styled horns. This was fantastic stuff indeed. Though most of the rest was slick 
American rock, the quality of such tunes as the trance-inducing ‘Quicksilver 
Girl’, with its use of repetitive textures, had never been heard before then. 

Though many have pointed to Miller’s disaffection with the San Francisco 
scene, documents exist of him jamming with a supergroup made up of Country 
Joe And The Fish and members of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane at 
Fillmore West in 1969. Boz Scaggs’s departure from the group after 1968 led to 
a period of unease and it wasn’t until Miller retired to Nashville in 1970 that he 
regained the finely textured sound of old. In terms of electronica his next high 
point was the fabulous 1976 album Fly Like An Eagle, which consolidated his 
star status. 

LISTENING 

As one of the most commercially successful American rock acts of the 1970s and 
80s, Steve Miller’s catalogue has consequently never been out of Capitol/EMI 
print. Children Of The Future and Sailor are two 1968 albums of incredibly 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


251 


advanced music which make most of the other San Franciscan groups of the 
time sound like amateurs. Sailor , in particular, is an essential purchase whose 
Ambient sound is still a healthy shock to the system. Miller’s penchant for lush 
acoustic ballads and impeccable recording can be further sampled on Number 5, 
Best Of The Steve Miller Band 1968—1973 and Fly Like An Eagle. The latter’s 1976 
appearance again showcased Miller’s interest in lush Ambient rock, its opening 
numbers, ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ and ‘Space Odyssey’, amply decorated with 
Miller’s imaginative use of Roland synthesizer. 


SANTANA 

The Latin polyrhythms and stinging guitar tones of Santana have brought the 
group and its Gibson-specialist frontman lasting fame in the rock pantheon. For 
ever associated with Central and South America, the group actually emerged 
from the psychedelic San Francisco of the 1960s, a fact often hidden by the hot 
silkiness of some of their best instrumental music. Though infectiously poly- 
rhythmical at the time, Santana’s direction led to a cool sound with its roots in 
Miles Davis and endless feedback sustains afforded by post-Hendrix use of guitar 
technology. 

Initially Santana were a collective of musicians from vastly differing back- 
grounds - white urban Gregg Rolie (vocals, keyboards) and Michael Shrieve 
(drums), black urban David Brown (bass) and street conga-player and Latin- 
music freak Michael Carabello teamed with the Nicaraguan percussionist Jose 
‘Chepito’ Areas and Mexican guitarist Carlos Santana. This was the group who 
made a devastating appearance at Woodstock in August 1969 and whose debut 
album that autumn flew up the US charts in one long, sinuous groove. 

Carlos Santana himself was bom in Mexican poverty to a mariachi musician 
father in the late 1 940s. He studied violin, then switched to guitar and as a teenager 
played the brothels and saloons of Tijuana. Affected by imported black American 
blues (especially that of B.B. King), he went to San Francisco in 1966. There he 
discovered Miles Davis, John Coltrane, LSD and the blues guitar of Mike 
Bloomfield. With pressure from music svengali Bill Graham, The Santana Blues 
Band was formed in 1 967 , with studied musician Mike Shrieve and timbales expert 
Chepito Areas arriving in 1 969 in time to support Jimi Hendrix at W oodstock. The 
debut album, Santana , rode on a wind of Latin and African rhythms; its outstand- 
ing cut, ‘Evil Ways’, was the most entrancing groove ever heard at the time. 

The group favoured long, intense studio sessions, sometimes up to twelve 
hours at a time, from which a segment would be honed to perfection live. For 
their second set, Abraxas (1970), they got a $1 -million advance for an album 
which on its release topped the US charts. Here they adapted the Peter Green 
blues ‘Black Magic Woman’ to a sultry, shimmering production with added 
salsa, blues, Latin and flamenco elements in an elaborate jigsaw. 



252 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Intense tours, full of stories of drug excess and groupies, dogged the band’s 
progress. Second guitarist Neal Schon was added late in 1970 but Carlos Santana 
was deeply dissatisfied with Santana 3 (1971). That summer the band performed 
an incredible version of Miles Davis’s ‘In A Silent Way’ to close Fillmore West. 
It was also the end of the original Santana. With Carabello and Brown out of the 
band, a more painterly approach was taken on Caravanserai (1972), whose two 
LP sides opened with exotic sound canvases. 

Subsequently Carlos Santana became undisputed leader, his spiritual leanings 
helping to perfect the guitar sound he had stormed the world with from 1966 to 
1972. His openly trilly sound and use of lengthy feedback sustains was a 
compliment to Jimi Hendrix. His composition style a virtue of Miles Davis’s 
modality. His instrumentality a product of blues intersecting with Latin- 
American virtuosity. In 1973 he displayed his devotion to Eastern gum Sri 
Chinmoy by recording an album with the English guitarist John McLaughlin 
dedicated to John Coltrane. In 1987 Santana’s ‘Blues For Salvador’ project was 
considered heartfelt and musically impeccable while he repaid his debt to the 
blues by playing with blues elder statesman John Lee Hooker in the 1980s and 
90s. 

LISTENING 

The vast Santana catalogue on Columbia/Sony may be a bit intimidating for the 
first-time buyer. In 1995 Sony Legacy put out an excellent three-CD boxed set, 
Spirits Dancing In The Flesh, which included live music from Woodstock and 
Santana’s awe-inspiring version of the open-groove Miles Davis composition 
‘In A Silent Way’ from 1971. In 1998 Columbia began reissuing all the original 
albums on remastered CDs with expanded booklets and extra live tracks. 
Abraxas (1970) is a good first port of call but the best Ambient experience is 
derived from Caravanserai (1970), where the guitarist excels himself on ‘Waves 
Within’ and the Neal Schon guitar duel ‘Song Of The Wind’. Other members 
Shrieve and Areas display outstanding taste on the sound designs ‘Eternal 
Caravan Of Reincarnation’ and ‘Future Primitive’. Santana’s own collaboration 
with John McLaughlin, Love Devotion Surrender (CBS 1973), may have produced 
much electric guitar sizzle but the quiet contemplation of Coltrane’s ‘Naima’, 
played on acoustic guitars, is peerless. 

In 2001 this album re-appeared in a remarkable Ambient ‘mix translation’ by 
Bill Laswell titled Divine Light (Columbia/Legacy). 


FOLK AMBIENCE 

The cross-over to rock music which Bob Dylan had so effectively executed 
during the mid-1960s had an enormous impact on the folk scene in Ireland, 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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Scotland and England. Irish and Scottish folk, with its inherent ornamental 
character, and the dronal quality of English folk music were seized upon and 
revamped in terms of electric instruments and new studio production techni- 
ques. If Anglo-Irish formations like Sweeney’s Men and Steeleye Span were 
formative electric-folk ensembles, it was the music of Donovan, The Incredible 
String Band, Fairport Convention, John Martyn and Clannad that really 
assimilated the new electronic and Ambient possibilities of the late twentieth 
century. 

Though often dismissed as ersatz Dylan, Scottish musician Donovan, born in 
1946, made quite a contribution in the form of his studio albums. With the help 
of producer Mickie Most and contributions from Jimmy Page and John Paul 
Jones (later of Led Zeppelin) his studio work of the mid to late 1960s was 
atmospherically sophisticated. Its delicate Romantic quality was apparent when 
Donovan broke upon the UK scene in 1965 with such gracious music as the 
sound documentary of ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ or the vibrato vocal-filled 
‘Turquoise’. Sunshine Superman (Epic 1966) was a huge stride forward. Re- 
corded in London and Los Angeles, this album featured string arrangements, 
Indian sitar and drones plus the guitar of Jimmy Page. With its tributes to folk- 
guitar ace Bert Jansch, American psychedelians Jefferson Airplane and Arthurian 
legend it was perfectly in tune with its times. Travels to Greece and Mexico 
were reflected on Donovan’s 1967 album Mellow Yellow (Epic). Flutes, glock- 
enspiel, electric harpsichord, strings and various acoustic guitar styles mixed with 
jazz elements on another rich collection. A Gift From A Flower To A Garden (Pye 
1967) was a two-album boxed set of baroque folk laced with organ, vibraphone, 
harpsichord, flute and percussion produced by Donovan himself in London. Its 
acoustic ‘For Little Ones’ disc featured sampled sea and bird sounds. Eclectic and 
whimsical in turn, Hurdy Gurdy Man (Epic 1968) showed a return to the 
strictures of traditional Gaelic music but refracted through a consciousness 
familiar with Moroccan climes. The title track was virtually Led Zeppelin with 
Donovan as lead singer! By 1969 Donovan was rocking out with guitarist Jeff 
Beck, leaving his gentle gossamer suffused creations to posterity. 

With their melismatic vocal techniques, use of medieval scales and exotic 
instrumentation, The Incredible String Band opened people’s ears to a carnival 
of acoustic sounds. Formed in the early 1960s in Edinburgh with a nucleus of 
Dylan fan Mike Heron and Celtic troubadour Robin Williamson, they 
gravitated to Glasgow, where they opened a club featuring chimes, gongs 
and stringed instruments picked up in junk shops. Admired by fellow Scots Bert 
Jansch and John Martyn, they also spent a lot of time in Ireland, where they first 
aired the hypnotic ‘October Song’ from their self-titled 1966 debut on Elektra. 
Handled by Bostonian Joe Boyd, they then travelled widely, Williamson 
bringing back various strange instruments from Morocco for the London 
sessions of The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion (1967). Bowed gimbri, 
flute, sitar, tambura, mandolin, acoustic guitars and Danny Thompson’s bass 
supported a series of short compositions that were at once strange, mysterious 



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and affectionate. Presented in an earthy psychedelic cover, its fifty minutes of 
music seemed to last much longer as the sounds eddied into North African and 
Asian harbours. If that was great, the next album, The Hangman's Beautiful 
Daughter , was truly astonishing. Fully competent in playing every instrument 
they could get their hands on, Heron and Williamson stretched song structures 
up to thirteen minutes. Modal, even microtonal scales were on offer as 
Williamson acquitted himself on fifteen instruments, including water harp, 
chahanai and pan pipes. The album’s second side was a tour de force, fully 
embracing the depth of spirit of Indian classical music. Admired by George 
Harrison, this was as authentic as Western musicians could get without bowing 
to parody. Loved by Led Zeppelin, the band widened their troupe, lived as a 
commune in Wales, embraced Scientology and multi-media and played Wood- 
stock. By 1970 they were on the Island label and, excepting the raga-like 
qualities of songs like ‘Maya’ and ‘Dreams Of No Return’, their successive 
releases edged them further towards a bland folk-rock and away from the 
wonderful acoustic stillness of their best work. 

Bert Jansch was another Scot who made waves. Influenced by Mississippi 
blues and the modal picking of Davy Graham, his open-tuned baroque guitar 
style became famous in London during the mid-1960s. When he teamed up 
with guitarist John Renbourn their sound influenced the careers of both Jimmy 
Page and Neil Young. Pentangle came into being in 1967 when they were 
joined by singer Jacqui McShee and the jazzy rhythm section of Danny 
Thompson and Terry Cox. With albums on Transatlantic and later Reprise, 
the group created a popular hybrid of folk, blues and jazz with extended bass and 
twin-guitar improvisation. Bassist Danny Thompson had already played with 
many Indian classical musicians, so the feel of many of their amplified acoustic 
albums is raga without necessarily playing particular scales or Indian structures. 
Sweet Child (1968) was a paired live and studio set, Basket Of Light (1969) 
included the famous BBC theme ‘Light Flight’, Cruel Sister (1970) featured one 
track lasting an entire vinyl side, while Reflection (1970) was their best-sounding 
studio album. 

Folk-rock was a difficult hybrid to muster. Many failed to see it was more 
than just amplifying acoustic instruments and putting a back-beat to it. The 
finest English folk-rock group of their era were undoubtedly Fairport Con- 
vention. Though led by bassist Ashley ‘Tyger’ Hutchings, the group has always 
been identified with guitarist Richard Thompson and their incredible singer 
Sandy Denny. Thompson grew up in the leafy areas of north London and 
started playing guitar at ten with his eye on classical music and Django 
Reinhardt. In 1967 Fairport Convention was formed, with Ian Matthews, 
Simon Nicol, Judy Dyble and Martin Lamble joining Thompson and Hutch- 
ings. Produced by Joe Boyd in the same Chelsea studio, Sound Techniques, as 
The Incredible String Band recorded at, Fairport Convention (1968) was a folk- 
rock experiment which included Dylan and Joni Mitchell songs. Sandy Denny 
then took over from Dyble as vocalist for a trio of quite brilliant albums released 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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by Island records in 1969. The first, What We Did On Our Holidays, interwove 
Denny’s beautiful creamy vocal with a richly sewn tapestry of electric and 
acoustic instrumentation. Sitar, strummed zither and the twin guitars of Nicol 
and Thompson were all in evidence but the most notable quality was the spatial 
Ambience of such pieces as ‘The Lord Is In This Place’ and the definitive version 
of Irish ballad ‘She Moves Through The Fair’. Bob Dylan still featured in their 
songbook but Fairport Convention were fast becoming a stellar group of unique 
quality. Unhalfbricking featured the mesmerizing folk-rock of ‘Autopsy’ and the 
lengthy improvisation of ‘A Sailor’s Life’. By their third Island album, Liege And 
Lief (1969), Denny was in full flight as she rocked out with Dave Swarbrick and 
Dave Mattacks, who had come in to replace the departing Ian Matthews and 
Martin Lamble, who died in a road accident. On an album which was more 
pronouncedly rock in one way and more traditionalist in another, Denny’s 
more intimate contributions were peerless in the genre. After this Mattacks and 
Hutchings formed Steeleye Span with an Irish duo and folk-rock was tmly 
established. Reflecting back in 1989, Richard Thompson thought the band had 
been young and still finding its voice when it came asunder in 1970. The music 
he considered to be Celtic was ‘a blend of drones and melodies in English, Irish, 
Scottish, Italian, French and North African which originally came from India’. 

Joe Boyd managed most of these artists through his Witchseason Productions. 
One of his most mercurial talents was Nick Drake, a well-bred and much- 
travelled young musician with a sound grasp of classical piano and the uses of 
horns and reeds. Bom in Burma in 1948, Drake was brought up in luxury in the 
English Midlands. His mother sang and while at public school he embraced 
Dylan, Bert Jansch and the emerging London scene of rhythm and blues music. 
Before attending Cambridge University in 1967 he spent months in France and 
Morocco writing. Entranced by Tim Buckley and Van Morrison, he began 
performing his exuberantly sad songs. Again Joe Boyd stepped in and put him in 
the Sound Techniques studio with engineer John Wood in 1968 to record Five 
Leaves Left on eight-track. Richard and Danny Thompson helped out on guitar 
and bass and Drake made ample use of conga, flute, cello and strings. The 
recording process took over a year, Drake painstakingly building up the songs 
with several arrangers. Released on Island in 1969, the album boasted a strident 
plucked guitar style, mature lyrics beyond Drake’s twenty years and wonderfully 
extended Ambient songs like ‘River Man’, ‘Three Hours’ and ‘Cello Song’. 
Living in Hampstead, Drake then spent months working on the lighter Bryter 
Layter in 1970. Featuring most of Fairport Convention, John Cale and sundry 
instmmentalists, it had some great sonic delights, like the expansive, wave -like 
‘Hazey Jane I’. Soon after the album’s release in 1971, Drake retired to his 
parents’ house in the Warwickshire countryside and became depressed. A spell 
at a Spanish villa did nothing to arrest his emotional decline. Yet he dredged up 
enough strength to record Pink Moon (1972) on sixteen-track in Chelsea 
completely solo. Again the guitar and vocal sound was mesmerizing. His 
drug-related death at the age of twenty-six was a real tragedy. 



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A great friend of Drake, and yet another folk musician associated with Joe 
Boyd, was John Martyn. Like Drake, he was born in 1948, but to two opera 
singers in Glasgow. His childhood was spent in a houseboat on the English 
canals with his mother. An early interest in the acoustic guitar led Martyn to 
leave school early and play in pubs and clubs. Influenced by the Incredible 
String Band and a personal tutor from an early age, he was keen to combine 
modern technology with the lilts and airs of traditional Gaelic folk music. In 
1968 he was spotted, signed to Island and from the off was putting his acoustic 
guitar through effects boxes and using phasing and other tape manipulations. A 
spell in America introduced him to jazz and he first started using the Echoplex 
guitar unit in Woodstock. Back in the UK, he played with Danny Thompson 
(who had come from working with John McLaughlin) and the sonority of his 
Echoplexed guitar built up a ricocheting, bouncing sound and led to a 
crescendo of overtones. By adding that and a fuzz tone to his acoustic guitar 
Martyn achieved a sound similar in effect to that of La Monte Young on piano 
or Terry Riley on electronic keyboards. Bless The Weather (1971) was a fine 
showcase of Martyn’s talents - dextrous interweaving acoustic playing, silken 
jazz-folk vocals and the six-and-a-half-minute Echoplex and piano Ambience 
of ‘Glistening Glyndebourne’. Solid Air (1973), often considered his master- 
piece, was a tribute to Nick Drake and again showed the sonic improvement of 
Sound Techniques’ sixteen-track facilities. Danny and Richard Thompson 
were again on board and organs, keyboards, vibes and reeds pushed the music 
towards Easy Listening. Yet Martyn’s sense of dynamic, how he framed a song 
and emphasized the instrumental qualities made songs like ‘Man In The Station’ 
addictive creations. Used sparingly on Solid Air , the Echoplex would take centre 
stage on Inside Out (1973), the track ‘Outside In’ a virtual homage to the off- 
beat technique. The album also featured a full blend of Moroccan, Indian and 
Gaelic styles. Touring with Danny Thompson and drummer John Stevens 
produced the atmospheric home-produced album Live At Leeds (1975). Mar- 
tyn’s final 1970s album was One World (1977), produced by then Island boss 
Chris Blackwell on twenty-four-track equipment. Admiring Jamaica’s dub- 
reggae king Lee Perry, Martyn was developing a more African-inflected style. 
Various musicians, including Danny Thompson and keyboardist Stevie Win- 
wood, helped out on what was one of his most ambitious achievements in 
sound. ‘One World’ itself was like listening to slow-motion music underwater 
but pride of place went to the eight-and-a-half-minute Ambience of ‘Small 
Hours’. Here Martyn’s slowly echoing electric guitar was backed by a heartbeat 
rhythm, percussion instruments made to sound like sea gulls and dripping water; 
the tone expanded halfway through by a MiniMoog synth solo. 

Folk Ambience reached its full electronic potential with the Irish group 
Clannad. The name was derived from the Irish ‘clann a Dore’, meaning ‘family 
from the town of Dore’, Gweedore in Donegal. During the early 1970s their 
interest was in The Beatles and The Beach Boys, music they played for 
relaxation after the constant reels and jigs of their father’s pub. The nucleus 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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was Maire (harp, vocals), Pol (flute, guitars) and Ciaran (bass, keyboards) 
Brennan, with help from two uncles as a rhythm section. They won a festival, 
got more equipment and became a famous gigging group, particularly in 
Scandinavia. They negotiated their own contracts and signed with Philips in 
1973. Clannad 2 (1974) featured Moog synthesizer with upright bass, flute and 
African percussion. By 1980 they were working in Cologne with the German 
producer Conny Plank and with their younger sister, Enya. Fuaim (1982) 
featured Enya and a Prophet 5 synth. According to Ciaran Brennan: ‘I studied 
classical music, was into Schoenberg and interested in drones with the Prophet 
5. I wanted to add colour and space to the music.’ The fact that Clannad used 
Irish as their first language didn’t deter anybody from appreciating the sonic 
beauty of their output. In 1982 they signed with RCA and went into Dublin’s 
Windmill Lane studios with lOcc engineer Richard Dodd. Inspired by lOcc’s 
beautiful pop masterpiece ‘I’m Not In Love’, Clannad used the Prophet 5 to 
sample their own voices, which were then keyed into the mixing desk. The 
misty harmonies of their break-through ‘Theme From Harry’s Game’, from the 
album Magical Ring (1983), were produced by the group sitting at the desk and 
fading them up in massed harmony as required. Awards and acclaim quickly 
followed, 1985’s Macalla featuring David Sylvian’s producer Steve Nye and 
Bono from U2. Pol’s departure to work at Real World studios in 1989 didn’t 
prevent Anam from going gold in the US in 1990. By 1993 they were even 
more famous, owing to writing the hit theme from the film The Last Of The 
Mohicans. Clannad’s dreamy mood music was the product of working in their 
own Dublin mountains studio with sixteen-track, a computer, a couple of 
keyboards and a number of samplers. Ciaran loved to wire three Yamaha DX7 
synths together in a room and experiment with delays and reverbs. Though they 
had spent years collecting traditional songs and working on their melodies, 
Clannad’s step into electronic folk was a natural evolution — but one which did 
not mask the pure tone of Maire Brennan’s voice nor the earthiness of their 
acoustic arrangements. 

LISTENING 

EMI released Donovan’s The Trip, a collection of music from his 1960s albums, 
in 1991 . A Gift From A Flower To A Garden was reissued on a single disc by BGO 
in 1993. In 1994 came Four Donovan Originals, EMI’s remastered reissued box of 
each individual US album from 1966 to 1969 in original miniature sleeves. The 
Incredible String Band had two archive BBC sessions reissued by Strange Fruit 
in 1997, the On Air set featuring the flowing raga interpretation ‘Dreams Of No 
Return’ from 1970. Both The 5000 Spirits or The Layers Of The Onion and The 
Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter are essential Incredible String Band albums, 
reissued on Elektra CD in 1992. Even sessions from The 5000 Spirits recorded 
in Chelsea in 1967 surfaced on Pig’s Whisker in 1997. 

Those interested in Pentangle should look to Live At The BBC (BOJ 1995) 



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and the expansive Sweet Child (Castle 1996). Fairport Convention were at their 
peak on the three 1969 albums, What We Did On Our Holidays , Unhalforicking 
and Liege And Lief, which were all reissued on Island Masters CDs in 1990. 

All of Nick Drake’s albums were also issued in 1990 on CD. During the 
summer of 2000 Island reissued Drake’s three key albums in remastered deluxe 
versions. John Martyn’s Bless The Weather and Inside Out were issued on the 
same imprint but in 1992 Island released the fabulous twin set of Solid Air and 
One World in one box. Live At Leeds was reissued on disc in 1992 by Awareness. 

Clannad have a long and honourable discography, though most of it 
emphasizes the RCA years. Magical Ring (1983) is a worthy starting point, as 
is Pastpresent (a good 1989 compilation), as both contain the definitive ‘Theme 
From Harry’s Game’. Later discs, like Banba (1993), Lore (1996) and Landmarks 
(1998), are full to the brim with that special Clannad Ambience. Lore came with 
a bonus CD, Themes And Dreams, featuring their hit film and television themes. 


ROCK EVOLVES 

PINK FLOYD 

When Pink Floyd began making psychedelic rock in 1966 they embarked on a 
musical journey so significant that it would alter the entire history of late- 
twentieth-century sound. From the start their founder, Syd Barrett, had a 
complete understanding of psychedelia, allowing the Floyd to be one of the few 
UK bands to create expansive hallucinogenic music akin to that of such San 
Franciscan groups as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Moreover they 
thoroughly embraced technology and looked on instruments as sound sources 
which could be utilized to paint a landscape. Their art and architecture 
backgrounds dictated a considered approach to recording and presentation, 
their immaculately crafted masterpieces Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) and Wish 
You Were Here (1975) finding an equivalence only in the 1960s work of The 
Beatles. Their perfectionist attitude to sound in the studio and on stage was seen 
as part of ‘progressive rock’ during the early 1970s but they far outgrew the 
pretensions of their peers. Their aim was simply to improve the quality of 
everything — composition, melody, structure, concept and spectacle. Between 
1966 and 1975 they did just that and in the process made some of the most 
beautiful instrumental rock ever imagined. Wish You Were Here still stands as the 
defining moment of Ambience in rock, a work of such resonance that it was an 
automatic sampling choice for The Orb when they began their sonic odyssey in 
1989. 

The Pink Floyd story is one of an enigma which has endured for decades. 
Though well over 100 million albums have been sold and countless books and 
articles written, the general public knows next to nothing about how their 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


259 


music was generated. Moreover their brilliant Hip gnosis-designed album sleeves 
communicated little about the band line-up or what instruments they played. 
The twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Dark Side Of The Moon allowed, 
for the first time, a detailed look at the making of a thirty-million-selling 
recording which, according to Philip Glass, was one of the best examples of 
Minimalism in rock. This element of reductionism, which made Pink Floyd’s 
best music sound both symphonic and accessible at the same time, seemed to 
permeate all aspects of the band’s life. Even though the group had exploded into 
acrimony by 1985, the legacy of their music still holds a deep mystery - one 
which deserves to be unravelled. 

All the members of Pink Floyd were post-war children who flowered in the 
expanded consciousness of the 1960s. Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett, Roger Waters and 
David Gilmour had all grown up in Cambridge. Richard Wright was born in 
London while Nick Mason was from Birmingham but grew up in London’s 
leafy Hampstead. All were distinctly English and middle-class. All had good 
educations and looked to the arts as a natural career. Barrett grew up with a 
father obsessed by classical music. He was playing piano as a child and then took 
to the ukulele and banjo. Soon enough he was playing guitar, mimicking rock 
’n’ roll tunes he heard on the radio. After meeting David Gilmour he went 
electric. Both Barrett and Gilmour attended Cambridge College of Art in 1962. 
In between their respective art and language courses they experimented with 
guitars, echo effects and marijuana. Gilmour had been given a guitar when he 
was thirteen and assiduously studied American folk styles. 

That year Roger Waters (who had had a brief naval career) went to London 
to study architecture. He blew his first year’s grant on a guitar and indulged his 
love of American jazz and blues. By 1963 he had met both Wright and Mason 
and formed the group Sigma 6. Richard Wright had gone to a private school, as 
had Mason. Wright, Mason and Waters were studying architecture at Regent 
Street Polytechnic. By 1964 Barrett (who’d been at the same Cambridge school 
as Waters) had gone to London to study at the prestigious Camberwell School 
of Art. At the same time Gilmour was making a name for himself with a 
Cambridge band, Jokers Wild. In the summer of 1965 Barrett and Gilmour 
went on a busking holiday to St Tropez. Back in London, Barrett, Waters, 
Mason and Wright intermingled. They formed a group called Spectrum 5. 
Barrett took pure LSD with another Cambridge friend, Storm Thorgerson 
(who went on to create the Floyd’s lavish record sleeves), and the stage was set. 
Wright became interested in Stockhausen and left architecture to study piano at 
the London College of Music. With an open mind to guitar feedback and other 
sound distortions, Barrett (with the help of Wright) envisioned a new music 
away from the staple rhythm and blues of most British bands. In the winter of 
1965 The Pink Floyd Sound was born. By 1966 Pink Floyd were in business. 

Barrett was a huge sponge. He absorbed everything from children’s rhymes to 
French Symbolist poetry, with a nod to mysticism and other esoterica along the 
way. He was inspired by the modal music of John Coltrane, the baroque of 



260 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Handel, the West Coast sound of Love and copious amounts of LSD to create 
‘Interstellar Overdrive’, a lengthy free-form electronic experiment which 
featured his electric guitar going through a Binson Echorec effects box. The 
Binson was an Italian metal recording device with controls which affected the 
volume, tone and length of a signal plus other controls to create echo, repeats 
and reverbs. It even had a mixer, was quite small and featured only six dials. 
Until their use of VCS3 Synthi in 1972, the Binson Echorec would define a 
major part of Pink Floyd’s sound. 

By the end of 1966 Pink Floyd were defining a new concert concept in terms 
of ‘happenings’ and ‘raves’, which were held in purpose-built venues such as the 
UFO club in London. Their music was billed as ‘coloured sound’ and featured 
liquid-light displays and projected films. One film- making acquaintance of 
Barrett, Peter Whitehead, wanted to film the emerging psychedelic London 
scene. He made a deal with the Floyd that he would pay for studio time if they 
allowed him to film the sessions. This he did in January 1967, when he made an 
extraordinary document of them recording ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ at Sound 
Techniques in Chelsea. Eventually released as part of the film Tonite Let’s All 
Make Love In London in 1968, the Floyd footage showed Barrett playing his 
electric guitar flat with metal objects and coaxing strange sounds from the 
Binson echo box. Moreover Rick Wright was putting his Farfisa Duo electric 
organ through another Binson Echorec to get that distinctive shimmering 
keyboard sound. Even Mason’s tom-tom playing and cymbal work looked as if 
it was designed to entrance. 

This session had been produced by American Joe Boyd and resulted in other 
material, including the incredible psychedelic pop single ‘Arnold Layne’, 
notable for Wright’s glimmering Echoreced organ. Literally chased by record 
companies, Pink Floyd were signed by EMI as an ‘albums band’ and ‘Arnold 
Layne’ was released to huge popularity. While Waters (now on bass) was in the 
background, he did provide limits within which Barrett could fly. Ensconced in 
Abbey Road studios during the spring and summer of 1967, they recorded their 
first album under the eye of former Beatles’ engineer Norman Smith. In a 
strange twist of fate, The Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club 
Band in the building at the same time and a meeting occurred as a result of 
McCartney’s Stockhausen-assisted vision of a new electronic music. Nothing 
happened at this meeting. We are left to speculate whether it was a class division 
(Liverpool working class meets Cambridge privilege) or temperamental differ- 
ences. 

By the summer of 1967 Pink Floyd were using a quadraphonic surround- 
sound system, the Azimuth Co-Ordinator, live. Another single, the soaring 
guitar- and-organ extravaganza ‘See Emily Play’, was released, a piece sprinkled 
with speeded-up piano and a dreamy Ambient production sound. Live, Pink 
Floyd were also using found sounds, like wind and rain randomly taped. Their 
quick absorption of the ideas of John Cage and The Beatles could be heard all 
over their debut EMI album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, released at the 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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end of the summer of 1967. If lyrically Syd Barrett drew much from his LSD 
experiences, astronomy, the I Ching and his love of fairy-tales and children’s 
rhymes, he was predominantly affected by English nostalgia and rural heritage. 
The last two tracks of Piper crystallized this very English perspective — the lilting 
acoustic ‘Scarecrow’ and the vaudevillian ‘Bike’, which concluded with a door 
opening on a Victorian clockwork-toy shop and the sound of quacking ducks! 
Though recorded on standard four-track, the album was full of tape manipula- 
tion, random edits, double-tracked vocals, Echoreced guitar, reverb and 
Wright’s glittering Farfisa organ. 

Pink Floyd were now the darlings of the psychedelic scene. They were 
welcomed in Europe and America but Barrett’s increasing use of LSD and 
erratic stage presence (no strings on his guitar, staring blankly into the audience) 
made life impossible for the rest of the band. In the autumn of 1967 Barrett cut a 
strange hybrid of acoustic rock, brass band and electronica at a London studio 
titled ‘Jugband Blues’. Soon after, sessions commenced on the Floyd’s second 
album, A Saucerful Of Secrets, to which he contributed little. That Christmas 
David Gilmour came in to help out on guitar and vocals. By the spring of 1968 
Barrett was out of Pink Floyd, his condition declared ‘incurable’ by the noted 
psychiatrist R. D. Laing. The group would spend the rest of its working life 
coming to terms with this loss. 

Recorded in patches, A Saucerful Of Secrets, released in the summer of 1968, 
saw Pink Floyd in true experimental mode. Along with ‘Jugband Blues’, Barrett 
had contributed to ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ and 
‘Remember A Day’. The former was a hypnotic Waters creation with Chinese 
roots played out to throbbing bass, shivering vibraphone, treated organ, Mason’s 
distinctive soft-malleted drums, sampled seagull sounds and much stereo 
panning. The latter was a dreamy Wright piano piece with an effects- warped 
backing. Outside these the stand-out creation was the twelve-minute title track, 
which at the time was compared to the work of Stockhausen. A Saucerful Of 
Secrets was a creation which began with Chinese gong rumbles, wind chimes 
and that typically foresty Farfisa organ sound. It went on to showcase Mason’s 
circular drumming technique, random piano clusters, backwards-taped guitar 
sounds and noise tape loops. Waters and Mason had written the piece like a 
Cageian diagram. It concluded in a stately fashion, all grandiose organ and 
syllabic harmonies. Gilmour, for his part, was eschewing blues guitar riffs for a 
more Barrett-like attack on the instrument — utilizing any object to attack the 
strings as the instrument lay horizontal. 

On tour Pink Floyd continued to develop their ‘Azimuth Co-Ordinated’ 
quadraphonic sound system. Much of their show contained Ambient sounds 
such as bells, footsteps, clocks and voices. Waters was now playing a Fender 
Precision bass and Gilmour had a couple of Fender electric guitars and a lap steel 
guitar for playing slide passages. Wright had his electric organs and Mason 
played the drums. This may sound basic but Pink Floyd had an uncanny knack 
of extracting the maximum out of limited resources. Commissioned to write for 



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film, the group recorded More in the early part of 1969 without seeing Barbet 
Schroeder’s hippie Formentera-located flick it was destined for. Released that 
summer, More was full of great music. The opening Waters track, ‘Cirrus 
Minor’, was pure Ambient bliss. The sound of woodland wildlife opened a song 
which drifted into acoustic guitar and concluded with Wright’s oscillating organ 
sound floating out into space. The sound was mind-expanded, but precise. The 
result was a mental trip one could do without drugs. The rest of More was a 
mixture of good acoustic ballads, bad rock songs, ethnic drum, whistle and 
Spanish guitar tunes plus typical Floydian electronica. 

Though Norman Smith was credited as producer, Ummagumma (1969) was 
really the Floyd producing themselves. A double album of live and studio 
recorded material, it featured the first great surrealistic sleeve of receding band 
portraits by old friend Storm Thorgerson’s company Flipgnosis. Like its silly 
Cambridge erotic slang title, the studio album was terrible. Each member went 
into Abbey Road and tried to create a solo suite. Only two pieces were up to 
standard. Gilmour’s ‘The Narrow Way (Pt One)’ was a take on Jefferson 
Airplane’s acoustic guitar melody ‘Embryonic Journey’ (1966) bookended by 
tape-effected electric guitar. Waters’s ‘Grantchester Meadows’ was the best - a 
perfect recreation of a lazy summer’s day by the River Cam of his childhood, 
replete with acoustic picking, the sounds of birds, bees and swans. It concluded 
with the humorous recording of someone coming down the stairs and swatting 
a bee in a room. Much better was the live album, which was all good, especially 
the scintillating Waters exploration ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’. Re- 
corded as a ‘b’ side at the end of 1968, the piece had taken on a life of its own. A 
throbbing hypnotic Ambience of bass and organ backdropped by angelic voice, 
its ethereal quality hid the ferocious dynamite blast of sound which erupted a 
little over three minutes in. After this veritable sonic apocalypse the piece trailed 
into the quiet of subtle cymbals, organ tones and softly stroked guitar. The piece 
was to influence the work of one of the great film-makers of the twentieth 
century, Michelangelo Antonioni. 

Having seen the psychedelic Floyd in London in 1966 during the making of 
his award-winning Blow-Up (1967), Antonioni wanted the group to soundtrack 
his new American counter-culture film Zabriskie Point (1970). With a $7- 
million MGM budget Antonioni could afford to invite the Floyd to Rome for a 
fortnight at the end of 1969. Enjoying the best French cuisine, they worked 
every night into the next morning for a month, recording over an hour’s worth 
of music. Here the group were really able to develop their ideas. From Nick 
Mason’s heartbeat drumming at the beginning, all the way through to the 
incredible end sequence where a plush desert mansion blows up, to a spellbind- 
ing version of ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’ (then renamed ‘Come In No. 
51, Your Time Is Up’), the music which Pink Floyd were now making was full 
of great ideas. Unfortunately, fifty minutes of material was left unused, some of 
it only surfacing in 1997 when issued by Rhino. One instrumental, ‘Love Scene 
4’, was a serenely attractive piano piece by Rick Wright which floated on a love 



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for both French Impressionism and jazz. Some of Wright’s lyrical piano 
creations were said to pre-date the trance keyboard part of ‘Us And Them’ 
from 1973’s Dark Side Of The Moon. 

Back in the UK in 1970, the group had serious financial problems to deal 
with. In a way this was the year they stepped back from innovating to 
consolidate their situation. In a fashion they looked back to their past, various 
members helping the temporarily recovered Syd Barrett to record two albums, 
The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, for EMI Harvest. More pressingly, they had to 
create a hit album, and this they did with the very English Atom Heart Mother, 
which featured images of cows and stoned songs about Cambridge. The 
centrepiece of the album was the twenty-three-and-a-half-minute title track, 
which featured brass, choir and solo cello. The group were helped out on this by 
an eccentric electronic composer friend, Ron Geesin, who scored and arranged 
the piece around the rock instrumentation. This piece was certainly too English 
in its preoccupations and sounded too much like bad Prog-Rock. Its only saving 
grace was Gilmour’s milky lap steel guitar playing and a ‘funky’ Rick Wright 
Hammond organ solo halfway in. The rest of the album’s tracks were still foggy 
with a druggy post-60s hangover. Wright’s jaunty ‘Summer ’68’ was good 
enough, while Gilmour’s ‘Fat Old Sun’ featured real church bells and some 
tasteful guitar work. The record hit its nadir on the sound-effects romp ‘Alan’s 
Psychedelic Breakfast’. Probably because of its transparency and obvious ‘pop’ 
accessibility, it was Pink Floyd’s first UK number-one album. Interestingly, it 
was recorded on Abbey Road’s fairly slick eight-track equipment and was part 
engineered by Alan Parsons, a young technician who’d worked with The 
Beatles. Parsons would play a crucial role in Pink Floyd’s future fortunes. 

With a big commercial success behind them Pink Floyd entered Abbey Road 
in early 1971 to begin recording on a high. In the grand experimental tradition 
they wanted to make a recording with the probable title Music For Household 
Objects, but the planned series of melodies derived from the timbres of glasses 
and cutlery did not transpire. Various musical fragments were produced on 
normal instruments, the music honed over seven weeks of recording which saw 
the group use other studios such as Morgan, AIR and Command during the 
summer and autumn of 1971. AIR studios had a new sixteen-track facility and 
Command was used to create a quadraphonic mix. Pink Floyd were determined 
to create a form of Hi-Fidelity rock and with Meddle (1971), their sixth original 
album, they succeeded admirably. 

Housed in a mysterious untitled green sleeve which looked like a textured 
image from the heavens (but in reality was a submerged ear), the album opened 
with ‘One Of These Days’, which began with the sound of wind and a 
ricocheting bass sound. The bass was basically two basses, one played by 
Gilmour, the other played by Waters through the ever-present Binson Echorec 
unit. The rest of ‘One Of These Days’ consisted of Mason’s backwards-recorded 
cymbals, another Gilmour bass put through a high vibrato amplification setting, 
a searing lap steel guitar tuned to an open E chord, organ and drums. This was 



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only a taster for the magnificent ‘Echoes’, a veritable cerebral voyage in sound. 
‘Echoes’ was the first time that Pink Floyd truly conveyed the profundity of 
their vision on disc. Millions would lie back and close their eyes and just travel to 
this heavenly music. The piece began with Richard Wright’s grand-piano 
‘ping’, an effect accidentally found by putting the natural piano sound through a 
rotating Leslie speaker. When Wright played the piano it had a ‘watery’ effect 
akin to an electronic harp. A series of backwards- taped drums and cymbals 
accompanied Gilmour’s creamy guitar, which led to the first series of dreamy 
subaqueous verses (sung by Wright and Gilmour). After a fine instrumental 
passage the phenomenal sound of Echoreced bass with drums, rhythmic organ 
and scorching electric guitar kicked in at the seventh minute. Halfway through 
the entire creation this dissolved into a ghoulishy dark phase of screaming gulls, 
rumbling sounds and spooky effects created by high-fretted guitars and by 
moving metal objects on bass and guitar strings. Ten minutes from the end this 
was superseded by sustained organ chords, then the ‘pinging’ piano, a ratcheting 
bass, the play of cymbals, the increasing volume of loud guitar and finally the 
upward chromatic slide of Gilmour’s electric guitar, leading to the comparative 
quiet of the last two verses, which referred to the sunlight as the ‘quiet 
ambassadors of morning’. The listener was left in no doubt that this was an 
aural voyage similar in sensibility to a good LSD trip. My favourite Pink Floyd 
music of all time occurs in the last three minutes, where the loud drums give 
way to a rising vocal wind effect faded into sun-dappled soft guitar, piano and 
soft bass with spatial percussion. This gorgeous instrumental was resolved with a 
windy sound loop similar to the album’s beginning and the pinging of the 
treated piano. 

When given the opportunity to play this brilliant new music in a Roman 
amphitheatre and have it filmed, Pink Floyd jumped at the chance. The French 
director Adrian Maben did a wonderful job on Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii 
(1972), filmed in Italy, Paris and Abbey Road at the end of 1971 and the 
beginning of 1972. The result was an eye-opening glimpse into the Floyd’s 
working method. Now available on video, it shows that the Floyd’s live 
instrumentation was nothing elaborate — Gilmour played his Fender Strat 
through a number of effects units, Waters played Fender bass, Mason had a 
double drum kit and Wright still banged away on his Farfisa Duo organ. In fact 
Wright had the lion’s share of sound equipment, using the Binson Echorec and 
augmenting the sound with a Hammond organ and grand piano. The WEM 
amplification was standard but large for its time. The group’s Chinese gong was 
also present. Also striking were the characteristic flat black and gold Sennheiser 
microphones. The studio footage showcased the group in Abbey Road writing 
stuff for The Dark Side Of The Moon , later to become simply Dark Side Of The 
Moon — their high-concept best-seller. 

Most people think of the album as having been recorded in one simple stretch 
of six months but in fact Dark Side Of The Moon was achieved over a staggeringly 
short studio time of thirty-eight days, two sessions in the summer and autumn of 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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1972, and another at the outset of 1973. More beguiling is the fact that the group 
were up to their necks in work — tours of Britain, Japan and North America; 
another film soundtrack for Barbet Schroeder (The Valley , which featured tribal 
chants); and a French ballet tour. At the close of 1971 Roger Waters begun 
tinkering around with a musical suite about things which irritate in the everyday 
life of a travelling group. Hassles about money, travel, time and the loss of one’s 
bearings were all worked into a loose concept titled Eclipse in a North London 
rehearsal studio at the very beginning of 1972. Rick Wright, for his part, came up 
with lots of keyboard instrumentals while Roger Waters worked hard on the 
lyrics. As with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper , this led to the subsequent deployment of 
found tape sounds, electronic sequences, repeating motifs and a willingness to 
explore areas defined by such composers as Stockhausen and Cage. In truth, 
thirty-six years after Cage had made his famous speech about the future of music 
encompassing ‘all sounds of the imagination and time’, Pink Floyd would 
embrace all of that to make Dark Side Of The Moon a classic album. 

The recording sessions at Abbey Road were divided into three blocks in 
the early summer and late autumn of 1972, and January 1973, between tours 
of the US and Europe. Engineer Alan Parsons recorded the basic band 
structures on sixteen- track with no noise reduction. Almost all effects were 
generated by tape machines. A second sixteen-track tape process was used to 
give more space for the complex overdubbing the album required. Because of 
tape hiss problems, Dolby noise reduction was used here. Other recording 
aspects were direct injection of instruments into the console without ampli- 
fication, simple reverb and a customized EMI tone box. The real glamour of 
Dark Side Of The Moon lay in its use of electronic and tape sounds. The 
electronics derived from the usual Binson Echorec and, most importantly, two 
Synthi A synthesizers coupled with a three-octave Synthi keyboard. (These 
were portable synthesizers made by EMS which both Waters and Gilmour 
found invaluable for producing a variety of original electronic effects.) 
Gilmour used another EMS guitar gizmo and a phasing pedal. Mixed with 
an excellent palette of Wright’s piano and organ tones plus silken female 
singers and Dick Parry’s breathy sax, the results mingled the strange with the 
familiar in a way that guaranteed a timeless quality. 

Dark Side Of The Moon quickly graduated into a thematic album about 
communication, death, belief, violence and insanity. Roger Waters laced the 
record with taped interviews, most notably from two Irishmen — the reflective 
Abbey Road employee Jerry Driscoll and the guitarist Henry McCullough. 
There was the recurring heartbeat drum sequence which opened and closed the 
record. There was Clare Torry’s extraordinarily effusive scat performance on 
‘The Great Gig In The Sky’, but above all there was a feeling of interlocking 
perfection which saw ideas and melodic fragments surface and submerge only to 
reappear in a different guise later in the record. One of the last things recorded 
was the opener, ‘Speak To Me’, with its heartbeat drum, ticking clocks, voices, 
cash-register noise, ominous synthesizer whirrs, Torry’s spine-tingling scream 



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and then the wonderfully arcing and treble-full steel sound of Gilmour’s guitar 
as it led into ‘Breathe’. 

One of the most important tracks on Dark Side Of The Moon was ‘On The 
Run’, which featured a rolling synthesizer sequence generated from the Synthi 
A. This took ages to generate. Philip Glass has remarked how much this 
borrowed from Minimalism, its robotic character pre-dating the famous 
Techno beat. ‘On The Run’ was incredibly impressive for its time, with its 
darting sound effects of planes, trains and a climaxing explosion. With the 
addition of running steps, heavy breathing and oscillator noise, the effect of 
humanity being literally annihilated by speeded-up transport has never been 
more graphically realized in sound. Equally, ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’, with 
Torry’s wordless ‘outburst’ and Wright’s elegiac piano, was one of the greatest 
of rock instrumentals. ‘Money’, with its seven-note bass riff, was memorable for 
Wright’s humid Wurlitzer Electric piano playing and Gilmour’s effects-laden 
guitar solos. ‘Us And Them’ came from some unused Ambient piano material 
Rick Wright had written for Antonioni in 1969. The use of Wright’s wavering 
Farfisa organ, a waltz-like slow tempo and much echo-delay made this song 
sound like aural hypnosis. ‘Any Colour You Like’ was another awesome 
electronicized instrumental full of shimmering Synthi keyboard and a Gilmour 
guitar solo put through a Uni-Vibe chorus box in honour ofjimi Hendrix. Here 
lengthy electronic tones generated by the Synthi could be heard in the 
background. 

Dark Side Of The Moon was more than just a record — it was a defining cultural 
moment. Ever since Atom Heart Mother Hipgnosis had designed album covers for 
Pink Floyd which left out their name and the album title. This air of mystery 
generated by the seemingly anonymous covers increased interest in the group 
and its music. For Dark Side Of The Moon Storm Thorgerson went all out and 
ended up with a ray of light refracting through a prism on a black sleeve. The 
emblem for the record was the Great Pyramids and the millions who bought it 
felt they were getting a profound rock experience. Quickly it became an 
American number-one album and Pink Floyd became famous, even attracting 
the interest of Andy Warhol. During their tours of 1973 they used a giant 
mirror-ball and searchlights, but by the summer of 1974 they were using a forty- 
foot circular screen to project films to complement Dark Side Of The Moon 
during its performance. Completed with lasers and inflatables, the post-D^R 
Side live arena and stadium shows would define the colossal sound and light 
extravaganzas of subsequent years. 

Though the Floyd had reached an advanced state of the art in sound on 
record and with their customized quadraphonic live system, they were still not 
satisfied. The winter of 1973 saw them try to resuscitate the Music For Household 
Objects project from 1971 with little success. By the spring of 1974 they were 
rehearsing new material for more concerts. Out of these sessions came a four- 
note ringing guitar arpeggio by Gilmour in G minor. This note struck Waters as 
being so mournful it became the basis for ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, a 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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song about human withdrawal from society, a veritable homage to Syd Barrett. 
This would be the main focus of their next album, Wish You Were Here , a 
recording which was done under conditions of complete physical and emo- 
tional exhaustion (and around two North American touring jaunts) during the 
first seven months of 1975. 

Wish You Were Here was by far Pink Floyd’s greatest achievement and still 
stands up as the most encapsulating of 1970s records. It is a perfect realization of 
Ambient rock; its twenty-six-minute, nine-part ‘Shine On’ suite saw Gilmour, 
Wright, Waters and Mason achieve a purity of sound that other 70s acts could 
only dream of. Moreover it worked on several levels. As a statement it summed 
up Pink Floyd’s life-story as a group, from the loss of their founder Syd Barrett 
(who turned up during the mixing phase) to the corporate wheelings and 
dealings of a band who commanded a $1 -million Columbia advance in 1974. Its 
sound was full of sheen, Rick Wright’s keyboard vamping at times alluding to 
the glitz of disco. If the group had their origins in a 60s haze of hallucination, 
Wish You Were Here was more in keeping with its cocaine-fuelled times. Even its 
white cover had an air of 70s chic, coming with a postcard of an exotically 
located diver. Again Storm Thorgerson’s cover art was a stroke of genius. With 
its front image of a Hollywood back-lot handshake as one executive bums, its 
back shot of a faceless and bodyless businessman in the desert and its inner sleeve 
showing a drifting scarf and a splashless diver, the sleeve art was one continuous 
observation. Each photo even had an allusion to its elemental representation — 
burning, falling sand and spouting water. The whole was housed in black 
cellophane with only a sticker on the front of interlocking robotic hands against 
a representation of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. 

Wish You Were Here's opening and closing track, ‘Shine On You Crazy 
Diamond’, took six weeks to get right. Work at Abbey Road was difficult, 
getting the correct dmm sound and fitting the parts together, but the results 
were justifiably magnificent. Rick Wright, in particular, shone with the mix of 
MiniMoog synth, electric organ and Fender Rhodes electric piano he applied to 
the enterprise. And David Gilmour’s guitar was at its most lyrical and varied. 
The opening of ‘Shine On’ featured an almost inaudible dripping sequence 
from a Synthi A, followed by a rising electronic organ chord held for two and a 
half minutes in G minor, overlaid by the MiniMoog switched to a horn setting 
augmented by Gilmour’s heavenly piercing liquid guitar. After about four 
minutes (delicate tinkling chimes in the background), Gilmour’s famous open- 
stringed four-note G-minor chord was heard for the first time, its overtones 
defining a physical space all around it. It was eight and a half minutes before 
Waters’s melancholic lyric was heard. This quickly faded out and just after the 
eleventh minute the windy sax of old Cambridge friend Dick Parry arrives as if 
from heaven, backed by Gilmour’s slowly stmmmed electric chord. In contrast 
the subsequent track, ‘Welcome To The Machine’, was centred around a 
myriad of electronic effects — vari-speeded tape, automatic double-tracking and 
repeat echo. Beginning with the sound of opening and clamping shut mechan- 



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ical doors, its defining quality was the relentless throb of the VCS3 Synthi with 
its boom echo-repeat used in conjunction with a high-frequency Moog synth. 
The title track featured the sound of Gilmour’s guitar without the bass 
frequencies, car-radio interference, Gilmour’s finest-ever acoustic guitar intro 
and Waters’ best-ever lyric, sung by Gilmour and Wright. The album climaxed 
with the rest of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’; the sound of wind followed 
by the MiniMoog, much lap steel guitar, and in its final six minutes Gilmour 
picking harmonic notes off his electric guitar to Wright’s wonderfully rever- 
berating jazz- tinged Fender Rhodes piano. The album ended as it began with 
Wright’s horn-like synthesizer enveloped in the receding electronic washes of 
the VCS3 Synthi. Recorded on twenty-four-track equipment, it was the very 
best amalgam of acoustic, electric and electronic instruments. It was also the last 
time the four members of Pink Floyd would work together as a cohesive unit. 

Wish You Were Here was a number-one album on both sides of the Atlantic on 
its release in the autumn of 1975. The group did a subsequent quadraphonic mix 
and built the Britannia Row studio in a North London chapel. There they 
recorded Animals (1977), much of it based on material they had rejected during 
the Wish You Were Here sessions. Dominated by Waters’s jaundiced view of 
society (and a nod towards George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm), Animals was 
less ambitious than its predecessors, with much of the emphasis placed on 
Waters’s biting lyrics. The album was well received and made famous by its 
cover shot of a pig floating between the smokestacks of Battersea power station. 
(This cover would later be adapted by The Orb.) 

Waters became disillusioned by subsequent tours and wrote The Wall (1979), 
a double album of personal antagonism, recorded over a year in France, Los 
Angeles and New York with the Canadian producer Bob Ezrin. Despite its 
American number-one position, it was pure conceit, and only memorable for 
Gilmour’s guitar composition ‘Comfortably Numb’. In fact Rick Wright was 
fired during the sessions. Subsequent ego battles, poor recordings, financial 
problems and such were to make the tabloid headlines but are of little interest 
here. Waters officially resigned in 1985 but two years later Gilmour again toured 
Pink Floyd as a trio with backing musicians. Musically, both Waters’s solo effort, 
Amused To Death (1992) and The Division Bell (1994) by Gilmour, Wright and 
Mason (as Pink Floyd), have interesting moments, but they lack the complete- 
ness of both Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, where the group 
reached the apogee of their art. 

LISTENING 

The bulk of Pink Floyd recordings are on EMI Harvest in the UK and 
Columbia in the US. Dark Side Of The Moon was the first CD release by 
EMI in 1984. The original engineer, Alan Parsons, supervised the remastering of 
the album in 1992, though personally I prefer the less trebly original CD. The 
first set of digital remasters appeared in a boxed set titled Shine On in 1992. 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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Subsequently they achieved individual remastered CD release in 1994—5. Wish 
You Were Here is by far the best Pink Floyd album on CD, its quiet passages fully 
illuminated by the medium. For those in search of great Ambiences in sound, 
both that album and Meddle are essential. For those interested in psychedelia, 
The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn is one of the great 1967 albums. 

The best visual document is Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii (Polygram Video), 
with all the Dark Side Of The Moon studio footage intact. EMI reissued the 
fascinating soundtrack to More in 1996 with an expanded booklet of stills from 
Barbet Schroeder’s film. Rhino’s 1997 reissue of the Zabriskie Point soundtrack 
contains valuable rare Pink Floyd out-takes from the sessions for Antonioni in 
Rome in 1969. If you are interested in latter-day Floyd check out David Gilmour 
(Harvest 1978), Rick Wright’s Wet Dream (Harvest 1978), Roger Waters’s 
Amused To Death (Sony 1992) and Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell (EMI 1994). As 
David Gilmour has pointed out, this album showed himself, Wright and Mason 
back playing at full strength; Dick Parry was on saxophone, there were soulful 
backing vocalists and the theme of broken communication was topped off by 
another Storm Thorgerson sleeve. Luscious, creamy and often mellifluous, The 
Division Bell was a creditable post- Waters comeback. 


KEITH EMERSON, KING CRIMSON, YES 


What’s fascinating in hindsight is that one of the most criticized movements in 
1970s music, ‘progressive rock’, was at the time known as ‘flash-rock’, ‘space- 
rock’ or, more accurately, ‘techno-rock’. The latter title derived not only from 
the form’s fixation with new synthesizer and keyboard technology but also with 
its love of complex musical structures, changing time signatures and strange 
classical ambitions. In terms of sound, ‘progressive rock’ was a compressed 
medium, its busy alternating textures more at home with nineteenth-century 
Romanticism than the New Minimalism coming from America. In a way 
‘progressive’ was really ‘regressive’ rock, happily harking back to older forms 
and ancient times (myths, legends, medieval history) to convey an aura of 
mystery. Hence musicians such as Pink Floyd and Mike Oldfield have little in 
common with the worst conceits of ‘progressive rock’, which included playing 
double- or triple-necked guitars and making triple-gatefold overblown concept 
albums. A very English phenomenon, the form reached its most absurd on the 
David Greenslade keyboard album The Pentateuch Of The Cosmogony (EMI 
1979), meaning ‘the book of the universe’, which came out as a boxed double 
album with a lavish forty-seven-page fantasy book. 

Ignoring the tripe, ‘progressive rock’ did produce some great music and 
created some important ripples in the history of Ambient and Electronic music. 
Keith Emerson, King Crimson and Yes all distinguished themselves in the field 
and though they all released too many bad records some of what they did has 



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lasting value. Keith Emerson was a Lancastrian, born in 1944, who had 
ambitions as a classical pianist. A move to London in the 1960s saw him 
playing rhythm and blues on the round-toned Hammond organ. Soon he was 
backing soul singer P.P. Arnold with a group which became The Nice. 
Emerson was an incredible showman who emulated Jimi Hendrix with his 
on-stage antics. His Hammond was brutalized nightly, stabbed with daggers, 
whipped and set fire to. Leonard Bernstein was furious at their use of his 
‘America’ and had The Nice’s single version rescinded in the US. Five Mercury 
albums were released between 1967 and 1970, all drawing heavily from such 
classical composers as Bach, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. Impressed by the sound 
of the Moog synthesizer on Wendy Carlos’s Switched- On Bach , Emerson paid a 
small fortune for a row of Moog modules in 1970. 

This infatuation with the Moog led to the formation of Emerson, Lake & 
Palmer, whose eponymous album for Island in 1970 featured the Moog sound. 
One song, ‘Lucky Man’, was a big hit in America and so impressed was Robert 
Moog that Emerson became one of his most valued customers. Moog met 
Emerson in 1971 and Moog’s factory took special care of his system, even 
customizing performance trigger-boxes so Emerson could reset it without effort 
on stage. Emerson’s group, now known as ELP, became a stadium-rock 
sensation in the US, performing below proscenium arches and eventually 
touring with orchestras. The approach was technical excellence in the studio, 
leading to constant overdubbing of tracks. Live it was spectacle, with Emerson 
performing in front of a huge Moog tower. The 1977 opus Works Vol. 1 
(Manticore) even included a version of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare For The 
Common Man. By then Emerson’s Moog had been customized to include 
two huge sequencers, lines of programmers and a TV set with a waveform 
pattern blinking across it. On stage Emerson placed his four-cabinet Moog stack 
behind his Hammond organ and surrounded himself with every other type of 
keyboard, piano and synth he could lay his hands on. He also used the Moog’s 
large ribbon controller to launch fireworks! If this all sounds silly, Emerson’s 
giant Moog is still going today, having been modified by the original tech- 
nicians. At seventeen square feet and an astonishing 550 pounds it has to be one 
of the most famous vintage synthesizers in operation. 

King Crimson were a different proposition entirely. According to founder 
member Robert Fripp, the band was ‘a social/political/economic experiment 
with a life of its own. In essence a form of anarchy with no leaders, interchange- 
able roles and no one really in charge.’ Fripp ’s ideal was to capture a vibrancy 
and this occurred when a group of musicians, mostly from Bournemouth, 
started rehearsing in the basement of a London cafe. The music was full of flutes 
and acoustic guitars while Pete Sinfield’s lyrics veered from fairy-tale to dark 
portents. Greg Lake was an excellent bassist and singer. Mike Giles was a 
powerful drummer and Fripp ’s electric guitar could switch from velvet subtlety 
one moment to awesome virtuosity the next. Flautist Ian McDonald also played 
keyboards, including the Mellotron, perhaps the most defining characteristic of 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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Crimson’s sound. Their Mellotron Mk2 had two thirty-five-note keyboards 
with each note able to play one of three audio tapes which could last up to nine 
seconds. These tapes were filled with musical ‘samples’, usually organ, strings or 
harpsichord, which made it a very versatile tool that could even blend timbres. 
King Crimson used it to devastating effect on their Island debut album of 1969. 

In The Court Of The Crimson King is one of the defining rock moments of the 
twentieth century. It is said to have augured ‘progressive rock’ and certainly its 
screaming-head cover art and song titles, which broke down into subparts, went 
a long way to support that view. Yet its contents were unique, drawing from a 
variety of sources, including jazz, flower-power ballad and orchestral music, 
particularly Fripp’s interest in Dvorak and Stravinsky. The album had a precision 
in the arrangements and the lengthy movements of the title track and ‘Epitaph’ 
were cunningly achieved. Recorded in just eight days, on its release it 
established Crimson as ‘one of the world’s best performing rock groups’. Even 
before the album was out their reputation saw them support The Rolling Stones 
at a free concert attended by 650,000 in London’s Hyde Park during the 
summer of 1969. Fripp viewed King Crimson as very much ‘in the moment’, 
for the first incarnation split up on tour in the US at the close of the 1960s. Greg 
Lake left in 1970 to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Pete Sinfield continued to 
experiment with a VCS3 Synthi until he too departed the fold in 1971 . Crimson 
went through at least nine line-up changes in the 1970s (a classic formation from 
1973 to 1974 included Yes drummer Bill Bruford and two Mellotrons) but did 
not regain its momentum until 1981 with Discipline (EG), an album which 
included a gorgeous instrumental dedication to Paul Bowles’s novel The 
Sheltering Sky. 

Yes seemed to dominate the 1970s albums market, particularly with those 
eye-catching fantasy sleeves of mountain lakes, ocean floors and frozen ancient 
terrains courtesy of Royal College of Art graduate Roger Dean. In their day 
they crystallized the best and worst of what ‘progressive rock’ had to offer. Most 
importantly, Close To The Edge ( 1972 ) still conveys a unique sound world. Yes 
were a product of the 1960s, formed in 1968 in London by Lancashire singer 
Jon Anderson and public-school-educated bassist Chris Squire. With teenage 
jazz drummer Bill Bruford in tow Yes featured a Hammond organ and a music 
heavily influenced by West Coast American rock and pop soul group The Fifth 
Dimension. Theirs was a sweet, aerated sound topped off by Anderson’s 
distinctively high alto vocal. Made for Atlantic, early records like the orchestral 
Time And A Word (1970) lacked real confidence, but the arrival of psychedelic 
guitarist Steve Howe and producer Eddie Offord changed all that in 1971. 
Offord was keenly interested in what Keith Emerson had done with the Moog 
synth and had one set up in Advision studios, where he worked with Yes. 
Londoner Howe had distinguished himself in Tomorrow, even learning the 
Indian sitar. The Yes Album (1971) was a huge leap in quality, with Howe 
contributing a brilliant effects-laden guitar solo to ‘Starship Trooper’. 

After an American tour Yes lost their organ player and recruited Rick 



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Wakeman, who played not only the Hammond organ but also the Mellotron, 
MiniMoog synthesizer, Fender Rhodes electric piano, harpsichord, pipe organ 
and anything else with keys. Bom in 1949 in London, Wakeman was innately 
musical, attending the Royal College of Music at sixteen. Attracted to lucrative 
session work, he quit college to go professional, playing the Mellotron on David 
Bowie’s eerie ‘Space Oddity’ single in 1969. With the definitive line-up of 
Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Squire and Howe, Yes cut their first Roger 
Dean-illustrated album, Fragile (1971), which showcased Squire as an excellent 
propulsive and technically visionary bass player, especially on ‘The Fish’. 

Three months in the making, Close To The Edge was another decade-defining 
sixteen-track marvel full of wonderful tape effects and synthesizer noises. Both 
Squire’s bass and Howe’s guitars seemed to be put through every gizmo then 
available. Howe even played a Coral electric sitar on the album, an electric 
instmment which had thirteen resonating strings to go with the additional six. 
The title track took up an entire album side and began with the incremental 
volume of tape-looped natural wild birdsong backed by a metallic hurdy-gurdy 
sound. Then began an unforgettable elastic bass and electric guitar twin solo and a 
series of jaw-dropping time changes and instmmental flourishes as the piece 
zigzagged its way across an incredible soundscape. After eight and a half minutes 
the piece became Ambient — all keyboards and guitars being made to mimic the 
sound of watery terrain, complete with dripping- water effect. Wakeman’s 
reverberated piano here was at its minimal best. Ostensibly the end of the 
subsection ‘I Get Up I Get Down’, this special aural space was completely mined 
by a gratuitous Gothic church-organ solo by Wakeman. 

It was here that ‘progressive rock’ lost its way, for in 1973 Wakeman recorded 
a whole suite of keyboard musics dedicated to the deceased wives of the Tudor 
King Henry VIII. Not content with using two Mellotron 400s, four Mini- 
Moogs and everything else, Wakeman saw himself as some caped, blond-haired 
cmsader of Arthurian legend. The outcome was the egotistical Myths And 
Legends Of King Arthur (A&M 1975), whose London premier on ice featured a 
ninety-piece orchestra and choir, a rock band and skating clashing knights. This 
came after extensive touring with Yes had produced the triple-live Yessongs 
(1973) and the bloated double-album single-composition nightmare of Tales 
From Topographic Oceans (1973), only remembered for Dean’s impressive sleeve 
painting of fish swimming in a nocturnal underwater dream world of stars and 
Mayan pyramids. Curiously, the more pompous the music got, the more 
successful it was, both Wakeman and Yes racking up UK number ones and high 
US chart placings in 1974. 

LISTENING 

Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s self-titled first album and Works Vol. 1, released in 
1970 and 1977 respectively, were reissued on disc by Castle in 2001. Both King 
Crimson and Yes were given the CD boxed-set treatment in 1991, with Frame 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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By Frame (Virgin) and The Yes Years (Atco). Back in 1988 Robert Fripp and 
engineer Tony Arnold remastered the entire Crimson catalogue. The new CD 
version of In The Court Of The Crimson King was released in the US in 1989, in 
the UK in 1991 and again in a de-luxe gatefold-sleeve format by Virgin in 1999. 
Later tracks, like the acoustic-guitar ‘Peace A Theme’ (1970) and the Mellotron 
flute-led ‘Trio’ (1974), are some of the loveliest Crimson instrumentals put to 
disc. Yes made a comeback of sorts in 1974, approaching Vangelis to join them 
before settling on classical Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz. ‘Soon’, from the 
album Relayer , had an expansive overflowing richness. But Close To The Edge 
(Atlantic) is the definitive Yes album, remastered by Joe Gastwirt in 1996, its 
simple green cover- art making it stand out from the rest of the Yes oeuvre. 
Other ‘progressive’ groups of note were Soft Machine, Caravan, Van Der Graaf 
Generator and Wishbone Ash. Soft Machine featured drummer- vocalist Robert 
Wyatt and were part of free-form psychedelia before recording a debut album 
with Tom Wilson in 1968. Caravan made high-quality jazz pop and combined 
flute and electric organ to impressive effect on their first two Decca albums, If I 
Could Do It All Over Again (1970) and In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971). 
Van Der Graaf Generator hailed from Manchester and specialized in a sheets-of- 
sound vocal and instrumental style with no lead guitars. ‘House With No Door’ 
from their third album, H to He, Who Am The Only One (Charisma 1970), still 
stands up. Finally Wishbone Ash specialized in a multiple -guitar velvet rock 
sound so smooth that Argus (MCA 1972) sounds today as if it came from some 
mist-shrouded castle in the sky. 


LED ZEPPELIN 

At the time of their meteoric rise to fame during the early 1970s, Led 
Zeppelin were seen as another English blues rock band or at best a ‘heavy- 
metal’ group. Distance and the emergence of their music on one of the first 
CD boxed sets, Led Zeppelin (Atlantic 1990), saw them undergo a huge re- 
evaluation. The CD medium afforded a deeper impression of a music that was 
full of ‘light and shade’. Guitar shaman Jimmy Page emerged as a formidable 
producer, his work in the studio, especially with Jimi Hendrix engineer Eddie 
Kramer, standing up as some of the greatest Ambient rock ever committed to 
tape. Zeppelin’s true ability was in drawing from a wide palette of blues, 
modal folk music, Eastern music and electronica and painting it on to tape in 
glorious cinemascopic sound. 

Born in Greater London in 1944, Jimmy Page began serious guitar playing at 
fourteen, inspired by early rock ’n’ roll records. Soon he was practising blues and 
folk styles. He joined various ensembles before ill-health saw him enter 
Croydon Art College. Afterwards he became a session guitarist, his Fender 
Stratocaster and customized Gibson Les Paul appearing on some very famous 



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records. Two of his greatest achievements were his electric playing on the 
intensely psychedelic ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ by The Yardbirds in 
1966 and on Donovan’s 1968 opus ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’. During the mid-1960s 
he was house producer for The Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Oldham and 
even recorded with the German singer and actress Nico. His fearsome guitar 
duets with Jeff Beck of The Yardbirds were caught on film for posterity by 
Michelangelo Antonioni in his award-winning 1967 film Blow-Up . 

By that stage Page was playing a Fender Telecaster. Soon he became chief 
guitarist in The Yardbirds, their 1967 album Little Games (EMI 1967) showcas- 
ing his absorbing interest in the ‘folk baroque’ style of acoustic guitarists such as 
Davy Graham. ‘White Summer’ was basically a version of the old Irish tune ‘She 
Moved Through The Fair’ with a raga bent. Page had shown an interest in the 
Indian sitar but found it impossible to play. Studying the work of Rodrigo, he 
transferred modal tunings to electric and acoustic guitars. This feature alone 
would give Led Zeppelin’s music a distinctive edge. 

Led Zeppelin came out of 1967 sessions with Kent-born John Paul Jones. 
Keyboards, arranging, strings, woodwinds and bass were Jones’s specialities. Led 
Zeppelin became a band in 1968 when the two met a pair of musicians from the 
British Midlands, drummer John Bonham and vocalist Robert Plant. Bonham 
would become the most sampled drummer in history and Plant’s incredible 
vocal range, from cooing intimacy to full-flight falsetto, would define a whole 
new style of rock phrasing. All shared a love of the blues and a belief in the 
power of music to transform. Their first album was recorded in Olympic 
Studios, London in thirty hours during the autumn of 1968. Its release in the 
first month of 1969 invented a new form of ‘heavy rock’ music, establishing 
Page (with his lightning-fast leads and stop-start-stop chordal riffs) as the next 
evolutionary step in electric-guitar music after Hendrix. 

If live Page impressed audiences with a violin bow across his Telecaster, then 
in the studio ‘Black Mountainside’ evinced an absorption of Indian tabla music 
and the open-tuned modal folk music of Scottish guitarist Bert Jansch. Led 
Zeppelin 2 was recorded on the run in 1969, Page using two engineers associated 
with Jimi Hendrix, George Chkiantz in London and in New York the 
legendary Eddie Kramer. The latter’s expertise influenced ‘Whole Lotta Love’, 
a song full of backwards Echoplexed guitar. On stage Page would get the same 
effect using a Theremin and thus became the second most famous user of the 
Russian invention after The Beach Boys. By now Page had made the Gibson 
Les Paul his electric guitar of choice. 

The summer of 1970 saw Led Zeppelin go to Wales to write material in a 
country cottage. This folk-accented material was then recorded on the Rolling 
Stones Mobile at a deserted mansion in Hampshire called Headley Grange. 
Other studios were also used, including Electric Lady in New York with Eddie 
Kramer. Led Zeppelin 3 boasted the strange, Eastern-tinged ‘Friends’, which 
included a Moog synthesizer and John Paul Jones conducting Indian string 
players. Another highlight was the open-G tuning of the nirvanic acoustic- 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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guitar ballad ‘That’s The Way’. As a producer Jimmy Page was nearing his goal 
of creating a total Ambience in studio sound. 

During the beginning of 1971 Headley Grange and the Rolling Stones 
Mobile were again the background for extraordinary recording sessions for 
Zeppelin’s fourth, ‘untitled’ album (later dubbed Led Zeppelin IV). This time 
Page pushed equipment and location to its limits in order to get an other- 
worldly atmosphere. The mixture of hard-rocking blues and folk strains 
continued but with a greater emphasis on space and atmosphere. ‘The Battle 
Of Evermore’ was a beautiful acoustic guitar and mandolin instrumental 
powered by a duet between Plant and the dulcet tonsils of Fairport Con- 
vention’s Sandy Denny. ‘Going To California’ was another open-G-tuned Page 
diamond while the construction of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ recalled the cyclical 
nature of US Minimalism. From its rustic opening of woodwinds and acoustic 
guitars to its eight-second fading chorus, ‘Stairway’ was destined to become the 
most famous song in rock. Finalized at Island studios, it contained what is for 
many the best Fender Telecaster lead-guitar solo ever recorded. Its famous 
descending chord sequences required Jimmy Page to use a specially built 
double-necked eighteen-string Gibson ES electric guitar on stage. 

‘Stairway To Heaven’ was symphonic rock of rare grandeur yet it had super- 
clear definition. Early in 1972 Page and Plant extended this idea to recording 
with the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. Then that spring the entire group 
retired to Mick Jagger’s country mansion, Stargroves, to again record on the 
Rolling Stones Mobile. Later mixing was done at Electric Lady in New York 
with Eddie Kramer at the controls, for what was titled in 1973 Houses Of The 
Holy. This album featured the apex of Page’s orchestrated rock visions. ‘The 
Rain Song’ was without doubt Led Zeppelin’s greatest achievement. It used a 
variation of Page’s favoured open-G tuning and merged acoustic and electric 
guitars in seven and a half minutes of finely honed overdubbing. Moreover John 
Paul Jones’s Mellotron and piano parts were masterfully interwoven. Jones, a 
dab hand at the Hammond organ, was also a VCS3 synthesizer buff. Its warbling 
sound was heard throughout the atmospheric tone-painting ‘No Quarter’, 
along with some discreet Jones piano touches. 

A trip to Morocco would inspire ‘Kashmir’, recorded in 1974 at Headley 
Grange and recognized as the peak of Led Zeppelin’s interest in Indian, Turkish 
and Moroccan music. Using an upward and downward sliding note formation 
in another one of his open guitar tunings (this time a form of D), Page created 
something suitably exotic, its sensuous Oriental feel matched by Jones’s 
Mellotron and carefully scored orchestral accompaniment. Post-Zeppelin Page 
and Plant would revisit this terrain for No Quarter (Fontana 1994), a reunion 
album which featured a live ‘Kashmir’ with an eleven-man Egyptian ensemble. 
The project had begun with the duo writing around African drum loops 
sourced in Paris. The resultant ‘Wonderful One’ featured an open-chorded 
guitar tuning similar to that used on ‘The Rain Song’. Another trip to Morocco 
saw them record with the Gnawa trance musicians of Marrakesh. They even 



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returned to Snowdonia to rekindle the folk sound of Led Zeppelin 3, this time 
with added bodhran and hurdy-gurdy accompaniment. 

LISTENING 

By the late 1990s Led Zeppelin were Atlantic’s most successful recording act 
ever, with the second most lucrative back-catalogue in the world. Jimmy Page 
had remastered the entire back-catalogue in 1990, appearing on two impressive 
boxed sets in 1990 and 1993. The individual remastered discs came on the 
market in 1994. The appearance of No Quarter in early 1995 featured not only 
old Zeppelin material with a twenty-nine-piece English string orchestra but also 
four new songs couched in African and Arabic instrumentation. Outside Led 
Zeppelin, Jimmy Page has used his extensive home-studio facilities to record 
music for film, notably for Kenneth Anger’s early-70s film Lucifer Rising and 
Michael Winner’s early-80s Death Wish series. 


MIKE OLDFIELD 

When Mike Oldfield’s multimillion-selling debut album Tubular Bells was 
released on the fledgling Virgin label in May 1973 most critics could not 
understand its nature. They saw it as a breakthrough for ‘classical rock’, a work 
akin to that of Debussy, full of logic and flawless musicianship. The fact that 
Oldfield was only nineteen when it was conceived, and played all the instru- 
ments himself, made it seem a daunting feat. The work was seen as a ‘concept 
album’ and comparisons were made with other ‘progressive’ music made by 
Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Palmer and The Electric Prunes. When Oldfield 
performed the two-part opus lasting nearly fifty minutes at a London concert 
hall in 1973 he incorporated brass, woodwind, organ and a choir. Even his old 
friend David Bedford recorded an orchestral version with the Royal Philhar- 
monic in 1975. No wonder it was seen as a classical work. 

By the mid-1970s rock historian Tony Palmer was declaring Oldfield the 
future of music, its veritable saviour no less. Tubular Bells went on to sell sixteen 
million copies globally and establish one of the most visionary rock labels of all 
time in Virgin. But a listen to the recording makes it abundantly clear why it was 
so successful. Not yet familiar with American Minimalism, critics did not have 
the tools with which to analyse the music. Simply put, Tubular Bells was the first 
commercially successful use of Minimalism in rock. Its beautiful opening (used 
as the theme for the 1973 film The Exorcist) is a wonderful example of 
Minimalist composition. A cycle of seven notes is played on piano, then 
repeated with two notes added in the fourth bar. This intricate phrase is then 
played on a glockenspiel. Accompanying this trance-like sound is the sound of 
an E drone played on a Farfisa organ. This phrase is returned to again and again 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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throughout the course of ‘Part One’, resolving itself at the end of twenty-four 
minutes in a lovely antique guitar coda. What’s interesting is that it is in a modal 
key of A minor. Moreover its shifting accent on the downbeat is mindful of the 
work of Steve Reich. Oldfield and Reich shared a love of African drumming 
and its hypnotic beat structure. 

Oldfield was born in Reading, England, in 1953. A shy introvert, he escaped 
through music. At an early age he explored both classical and folk styles, 
spending all his time outside of school practising various instruments, especially 
the guitar. He made an album with his folk-singing sister Sally in 1968 and 
joined a rock band fronted by Kevin Ayers. When he left that in 1971 Oldfield 
set about a creating a composition by rebuilding a Bang & Olufsen tape machine 
to make four tracks. He made the rounds of record companies to no avail. At the 
time Richard Branson was establishing a mail-order record business and a 
recording studio. By the end of 1971 Branson had said no to Oldfield’s tapes. 

A crucial figure in the Oldfield story is Tom Newman, a musician, producer 
and engineer who helped shape Branson’s Manor studios in Oxfordshire. 
Highly influenced by The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Newman and his group July 
had cut a psychedelic album in 1967 using such Beatles standards as phasing, 
backwards recording, vari-speed tape, echo and distortion. Newman even 
sought advice from The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, on installing 
eight-track equipment in the country-house setting of the Manor. By 1972 
it was a live-in facility boosted to sixteen-track recording with Dolby stereo, 
very good for its time. 

Oldfield impressed Newman with his tapes and literally moved into the 
Manor. Branson gave the go-ahead and Tubular Bells was recorded over a 
month, the major first half recorded in a single week. Oldfield overdubbed all 
the guitars, basses, piano, organ, percussion and tubular bells himself. Thousands 
of tape overdubs were done with around twenty different instruments while 
Newman and engineer Simon Heyworth rigged up new equalization gizmos to 
boost frequencies. Tape loops were also used and lots of echo incorporated from 
various sources such as a steel platter and a rewired speaker-amp system. Branson 
attempted to sell the results to others early in 1973 but with no interest risked 
releasing the work himself. He called the label Virgin and by the summer of 
1973 Tubular Bells was a number-one album. 

Highlights from the recording were the sound of double-speeded instru- 
ments, the wave-like boost in volume which heralded the first entry of the 
ringing tubular bell sound four minutes in, the effortless melodic invention of 
Oldfield himself on various guitars, the serial role-play of instruments in the 
finale (introduced by comedian Vivian Stanshall) and its glorious stereophonic 
sound. The often-forgotten ‘Part Two’ featured some lovely Hammond organ 
and Spanish guitar Ambience sixteen and a half minutes in. Certainly Oldfield 
was a musician who could paint a mood with sound. 

Early success at twenty did not hinder his musical ambition, though Hergest 
Ridge (1974) was a disappointment by comparison. By 1975 Oldfield had 



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returned to form with Ommadawn , an elaborate album of instrumental timbres 
featuring Celtic harp and bodhran, Greek bouzouki, synthesizers, North- 
umbrian pipes and African drumming. As with Tubular Bells , Ommadawn 
featured Sally Oldfield on backing vocals but expanded the contributors to 
timpani, brass, strings and the sound of uileann pipes courtesy of The 
Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney. Even Oldfield’s brother Terry played the pan 
pipes. The African drummers of Jabula came into their own on the drifting 
finale of the nineteen-minute ‘Part One’. They would be heard again on 
Oldfield’s 1978 double-album Incantations. By 1984 Oldfield was making great 
folk-rock songs with Maggie Reilly such as ‘To France’ and that year he also 
scored Roland Joffe’s award-winning film The Killing Fields. Yet his first 
success would not go away and in 1992 Warner Bros, encouraged him to 
record Tubular Bells 2 using modern digital techniques. Even The Orb 
acknowledged Oldfield’s importance by remixing part of this. While living 
in Ibiza, Oldfield was inspired by rave culture to record the beat-oriented 
Tubular Bells 3 (WE A 1998). 

LISTENING 

During the faddish 1970s the original Tubular Bells was even remixed for 
quadraphonic listening. The analogue CD issue from the late 1980s still sounds 
great but a superlative boost in quality was achieved by Simon Heyworth and 
Tom Newman for Virgin’s twenty-fifth anniversary gold edition of 1998 
(which includes rare photos in a de-luxe booklet). Ommadawn is another great 
disc while an excellent overview of Oldfield’s Virgin years can be found in the 
Elements CD boxed set of 1993. 


THE GERMAN SCENE 

One of the great mythologies of rock literature is how German rock and 
electronic music from the early 1970s came to be known as ‘krautrock’. In 1993, 
in an article about the rebirth of the German band Faust, former jazz journal The 
Wire stated that it was ‘the London music press, with characteristically snide 
xenophobia, which dubbed it “Krautrock”’. Over a year later the same 
magazine ran a leader article about ‘krautrock’ as if it was a de facto term, with 
large excerpts from a highly personalized account of ‘The Great Cosmic Music, 
1968 Onwards’ by the eccentric English indie musician Julian Cope. 

In response I wrote a letter to the magazine which described the word 
‘krautrock’ as an ‘Anglophile term derived from a post-war hangover’. In 
reply The Wire contended rather speciously that such groups as Cluster and Can 
had adopted the term. In fact this was never the case (though Faust did name 
a track ‘Krautrock’ when they recorded their fourth album in England in 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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1973). Moreover most writers accuse the eminent British musicologist Ian 
MacDonald of inventing the label during the early 1970s when he wrote about 
German music in the New Musical Express. In fact during December of 1972 
MacDonald published three articles consecutively titled ‘Germany Calling’, two 
of them double broadsheet pages. In not one line did he mention the term 
‘krautrock’! 

Instead MacDonald gave a jaw-droppingly accurate description of German 
rock of the late 60s and early 70s. For openers he stated that in the UK there was 
a total ignorance of continental rock. Secondly, there was a strong revolutionary 
spirit among Germany’s youth since 1968. They disliked rich Anglo-American 
groups playing in their country and a lot of students demanded free entry. The 
concept of ‘the revolutionary head’ was paramount, a concept which ‘chal- 
lenged every accepted English and American standpoint’. The roots of new 
German rock were thus traced to a rejection of all previous forms, an acceptance 
of open improvisation, with ‘no leaders’. Hence guitar heroes and singer-stars 
were out, group instrumental expression was in. MacDonald dubbed the 
resultant music ‘tonally free sound improvisation’. 

In this setting it was no wonder that electronics took over, ‘the other-worldly 
capacities of the synthesizers’ as MacDonald described them. He feared the 
dematerialization of humans as machines became more and more important to 
the Germans, Kraftwerk of course following the ‘Man Machine’ concept to its 
furthest extreme as they famously celebrated the coming of ‘The Robots’ and a 
‘Computer World’ in their music. In great detail MacDonald went on to 
elucidate the various labels and the importance of the group studio where 
anything could happen. Fascinatingly, he pointed out that managers had to play 
in the band according to German law at the time and, more interestingly, the 
Arbeitsamt (Labour Exchange) did not allow any musician to be unemployed. If 
he or she was kicked out of a group, its officials quickly found another group to 
take them on. 

Importantly, MacDonald noted that a lot of new German music was ignored 
in Germany until it found critical favour in the UK. As he sifted through band 
histories he laced his detailed observations with much humour. Records which 
Julian Cope would later ludicrously drool over in his Krautrocksampler (1995) 
were stylishly dispatched to oblivion. Of the early jams of Munich commune 
Amon Diiiil MacDonald said: ‘The most valuable sociological inference to be 
made from these execrable records is that the early years of German rock 
coincided with a colossal boom in the sale of bongoes!’ Most surprisingly, he did 
not go the standard route and had things to say about unknowns such as 
Mythos, Limbus 4, Embryo and the ‘quite mortifying’ Floh De Cologne. He 
found Kraftwerk lacking in any emotion and saw a future for a type of new 
German Romanticism based on a meeting of Wagner and the Moog synthe- 
sizer. 

If MacDonald found Kraftwerk ‘heartless’ he considered NEU! to be 
‘tender’, but reserved great praise for Can, the most powerful example of 



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German rock, some of their music ‘as hypnotically engrossing as Bob Dylan’s 
“Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’”. Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, 
Amon Diiiil and such were all given their due but he was genuinely impressed 
by Laust, who with their ‘self-designed equipment made truly avant-garde 
music’. MacDonald presciently saw the mixture of revolutionary ideas and 
inadequate techniques as a genuinely strong basis for innovation. Nowhere did 
he ever mention the word ‘krautrock’ and I have to conclude that subsequent 
articles and arguments deriving the epithet from this source are pure myth. 


CAN 

The most potent expression of German experimental rock undoubtedly came 
from Can, a group of highly experienced composer-musicians formed in 
Cologne after the Paris youth riots of the summer of 1968. Can’s approach 
to limitation and ‘instant composition’ soon became legendary, all facilitated by 
recording their own music in their own time at self-built studios in a castle and a 
cinema. With the basis of an ethnically derived rhythm section, tape collages and 
electronic keyboards were all absorbed into a mix which openly acknowledged 
the influence of Stockhausen, Cage, Pierre Schaeffer and American Minimal 
music. Normal rock and blues references were relegated to the background 
while New Music ideas were brought to the fore. Can believed in finding a new 
language through constant experimentation and improvisation, and thus album 
tracks often took up entire sides of LPs. Continuously testing the parameters of 
sound, they were one of the loudest groups in the history of rock but were 
capable of beautiful and elegiac compositions. A direct influence on the likes of 
Joy Division and New Order, Cabaret Voltaire, The KLF and The Orb, Can 
became a touchstone for what was most creative in modern music. 

Founder Irmin Schmidt, born in 1937, had a strong background in classical 
music — piano and French hom — and had attended many music schools, 
including the Essen Academy, from which he graduated with a superlative 
distinction. He conducted the Vienna Philharmonic but on hearing the new 
sounds of Messiaen, Feldman and Cage opted to study ethnic music. During the 
1960s he worked with Stockhausen and Cage at Darmstadt, where he met 
Holger Czukay and Jon Hassell. Having worked in art journalism and written 
music for various media, Schmidt journeyed to New York in 1966 and met the 
Minimalists Young, Reich and Riley. This meeting convinced him to form a 
new kind of group. 

Back in Germany, Schmidt contacted flautist David Johnson and Holger 
Czukay. Born in 1938, Czukay was Polish with a background in choral music. 
After the war he had famously blown up a Russian ammunitions dump just to 
hear the sound of the explosion. He had worked in an electrical shop, studied 
bass at the Berlin Academy and worked with Stockhausen, who inspired his 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


281 


interests in tone building and sound analysis. In 1966 in Switzerland he met 
Michael Karoli, a Bavarian guitar player. Karoli, born in 1948, was a multi- 
instrumentalist from the age of four; by the early 1960s he could play anything 
on electric guitar from Mozart to Arabic music. He had a particular love of 
gypsy music and played the violin. To complete the line-up Schmidt rang free- 
jazz drummer Jaki Liebezeit, born in Dresden in 1938. Liebezeit could play 
piano and trumpet but turned professional drummer in Cologne after leaving 
high school. During the early 1960s he played cool jazz with Chet Baker and 
others in Barcelona before returning to Germany in 1966 and the free-jazz 
movement. Tired of formless music, he joined Can after impressing Schmidt 
with the depth and variety of his orbital drum technique. 

Experiments began in a Cologne flat but were soon moved to Schloss 
Norvenich, a castle in the suburbs, where the group, first known as Inner Space, 
played a music which incorporated the taped sounds of Gregorian chant and the 
Paris riots of 1968. Czukay played bass but was technically responsible for tape 
manipulations and mix-downs. With only a few microphones and two two- 
track tape machines the group were forced to produce their music live. Irmin 
Schmidt played organ and keyboards. The arrival of an American sculptor and 
musician, Malcolm Mooney, precipitated the exit of David Johnson and a 
change of name to Can. 

The process of playing live for long periods of time, allowing Czukay to edit 
the results, produced the debut album, Monster Movie (1969), credited to The 
Can. Issued first on a small Munich label, it was quickly taken up internationally 
by United Artists. Undoubtedly an impressive first album, this was the most 
dynamic and powerful rock music ever to come out of Germany. Can played 
with an intensity as if it was their last breath. The meshing of instruments was 
fabulous to hear — Czukay and Liebezeit laid down a heavy, thick rhythm 
section while Karoli literally insinuated his spidery sustaining Fender guitar in 
between that and Schmidt’s Ambient organ sounds. The music reached a peak 
of innovation on the side-long ‘You Doo Right’, a droning repetitive rock 
tribute to Minimalism. With the majesty of the hypnotic ‘Mary Mary, So 
Contrary’, nobody, but nobody sounded as good as Can. 

After the recording of some more sessions vocalist Mooney suffered a nervous 
breakdown and was replaced in the summer of 1970 by Damo Suzuki, a 
Japanese busker the band spied during a trip to Munich. On Soundtracks (Liberty 
1970) Mooney was heard on some fine ballads but the almost opiated 
performance of Suzuki on the groove-laden fourteen-and-a-half-minute 
‘Mother Sky’ was a revelation. Working far into the night, Can created some 
of the most distinctly potent music of the era with Tago Mago (Liberty 1971). 
They were capable of wonderful shimmering music which entranced the 
listener (‘Paperhouse’) and Schmidt was performing some remarkable feats 
of electronic wizardry like the detonating explosions derived from a modified 
Farfisa organ and Alpha 77 synth on the brilliant ‘Oh Yeah’. Again ‘Hallelujah’ 
was a side-long locked groove which merged the constancy of machine music 



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with ancient ethnic beats. Hildegard Schmidt, Irmin’s wife and Can’s manager, 
insisted on the group including a second disc of free-form instrumental music 
with the album. 

So popular were Can in 1971 that they even had a number-one hit single in 
Germany, ‘Spoon’, taken from their next album, Ege Bamyasi (UA 1972), which 
was recorded in their new studio, a converted cinema about twenty miles from 
Cologne. The album’s short pieces, specifically ‘One More Night’ and ‘Sing 
Swan Song’, revealed Can as masters of trance-inducing dexterity. The record 
also featured one of the first uses of drum-machine patterns, adapted from 
Schmidt’s Farfisa organ. Reviews, particularly in the UK, recognized Can as the 
finest experimental rock band of their era. After time off the- group returned 
with arguably their best record in Future Days (UA 1973), an album which 
found them expressing environmental sounds through their instruments and 
using tape loops of Indian birdsong. The title track alone sounded as if it were 
recorded in a mist, the production slowly uncovering another of Can’s erotic 
grooves. 

Can’s idea of ‘instant composition’, playing in unison ‘like an orchestra’, was 
only possible because of the wealth of musical ability of the participants. Irmin 
Schmidt said: ‘We always rejected the term improvisation.’ The departure of 
Damo Suzuki allowed Karoli to play more violin and sing. The new Can sound 
was even more atmospheric as evinced on the descending semi-tones of the 
soundtrack piece ‘Gomorrha’ (1973), a mood and sound which would resurface 
on their next mighty album. Again Soon Over Babaluma (UA 1974) was a classic, 
with a whole side devoted to the explosive ‘Quantum Physics/ Chain Reaction’, 
which concluded in the arena of volume-manipulated, tape-edited Ambience. 

And this is really the end of Can’s great period. A switch to Virgin and to 
sixteen-track recording resulted in Landed (1975), with only the Ambience and 
collage of ‘Unfinished’ coming close to their previous experiments. Subse- 
quently they worked with musicians from Malaysia, Jamaica and Ghana, fully 
exploring their interest in folk and ethnic music, Can played out the 1970s with 
a series of diminishingly interesting albums. The release of Cannibalism (UA 
1978), a first-rate compilation of their music up to 1974, highlighted the lack of 
genuine discovery in their late-70s work and coincided with the break-up of the 
group. Having shown that the ideas of Stockhausen, Cage and the Minimalists 
could be adapted to rock to produce new and startling results, Can became a 
legendary influence on subsequent generations of exploratory musicians. 

LISTENING 

In 1980 Hildegard Schmidt reissued the original Can albums on Spoon, and 
these vinyl pressings are the very best place to hear Can albums like Monster 
Movie (1969), Future Days (1973) or Soon Over Babaluma (1974). In 1989 Mute 
in London reissued the first six Can albums, up to 1974, on CD, but Tago Mago 
in particular is better on record. In 1991 the same company reissued the Virgin 



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Can catalogue on disc, including the excellent out-takes compilation from 1976 
Unlimited Edition (which includes ‘Gomorrha’). Between 1986 and 1988 the 
original Can with Malcolm Mooney reunited at the old studio for a new 
product, Rite Time (Phonogram 1989), filled with the new beat sensibility of 
House music. A logical extension was the Can remix album Sacrilege (Mute 
1997), which saw musicians as diverse as Brian Eno, Sonic Youth, The Orb and 
A Guy Called Gerald take original Can songs and put them through their own 
personal electronic processes. 

To celebrate Can’s enduring legacy, Spoon and Mute collaborated to release 
Can Box (1999), a huge extravaganza comprising a double CD, 480-page book 
and video archive material. Tragically Michael Karoli fatally collapsed at home 
in Essen in late 2001 whilst playing his guitar. 


FAUST 

Much loved by the British rock intelligentsia, Faust were one of the most 
extreme rock groups ever to come out of Germany. Unfortunately, the bulk of 
their music was and still is unlistenable. More a socio-political experiment in 
hippie and free-music aesthetics, Faust had the dubious honour of being 
nominated the best ‘krautrock’ band of all time — an unattractive epithet which 
they nevertheless acknowledged on their fourth Virgin album, released in 1974. 
Their popularity in the UK stems from their adoption of the noise + melody + 
accident = cool music aesthetic of The Velvet Underground. As far as I’m 
concerned their true importance lies in their use of tape-collage and chance, a 
sort of rock-soup meeting of Cage and Stockhausen and the fact that they sold 
100,000 copies of these tape experiments in 1973 to an unsuspecting audience. 

The background to Faust makes pretty funny reading. Two underground 
Hamburg bands meet a middle-class revolutionary magazine editor named Uwe 
Nettelbeck in the late 1960s. He has persuaded Polydor records that the sound 
of youthful unrest would sell. With two drummers, the Frenchman Jean-Herve 
Peron on bass and guitar and various others on keyboards and tapes, the groups 
merge into Faust and are given money by Polydor. They get a house in the 
country and settle down to a diet of pure LSD 25 and electronic experiment. 
Polydor, thinking that more money will improve the sound quality, provide 
them with the means to convert an old school house in Wumme (between 
Bremen and Hamburg) into a state-of-the-art studio. Sound engineer Kurt 
Graupner customizes synthesizers and sound effects into black boxes which can 
be triggered at will. Tape is the chief tool, and Gunther Wusthoff its main 
manipulator. The group live in the studio, growing their own marijuana and 
recording in bed! 

Faust (Polydor) 1971, marketed in clear vinyl with a clear-perspex sleeve, was 
the first result of Faust’s collage-improv rock. It began with excerpts from The 



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Beatles and The Stones and went downhill all the way to the end. So Far 
(Poly dor 1972) improved on the raggedness of sound, but sounded like the 
dope-rock it was. Faust’s real strength lay in their studio experiments and their 
ability to collage these into a meaningful whole. Attracting the attention of 
American violinist Tony Conrad (who had played with the pre-Velvet Under- 
ground Dream Syndicate), they then recorded an experiment in repetitive 
music titled Outside The Dream Syndicate (Caroline 1973). Alienated from 
Polydor, they were picked up by the fledgling Virgin label, who marketed 
The Faust Tapes (1973) for all of 49p. The album sold in six figures and brought 
German rock to a mass British audience. The album would be Faust’s best stab at 
capturing the open experiment of their studio excursions. Not just a jumble of 
studio out-takes, instead TJ'ie Faust Tapes seemed to lay out in a series of twenty- 
six edits the grand electro-acoustic sweep of their vision. 

Plagued by German revolutionary factions, the group opted to tour the UK 
in a disastrous on-stage experiment in pure noise. A final Virgin album, Faust 4 
(1973), was recorded in England at the Manor but the game was up. A fifth 
album was attempted in luxurious surroundings in Munich but the group 
folded, heavily in debt. Various sporadic albums of unreleased material appeared 
on the London-based avant-garde Recommended label during the 1980s. Since 
1990 Jean-Herve Peron has led a slimmed-down Faust on various American and 
British concerts, all of which have featured radical takes on ‘performance’. In 
1994 they played in Death Valley in California and in London for some gigs in 
1996 they brought amplified power tools, an arc-welder and hay-threshing 
machinery on stage. 

LISTENING 

The Faust Tapes (Re CD 1993) is well worth the effort for its ability to amble 
along Ambiently in the background. Snippets of French, English and German 
dialogue often intrude, occasionally an excerpt from a tune comes into view, 
but it’s the whole that really counts. Capable of many plays, it always sounds 
strangely different each time. Faust 4 (Virgin CD 1992) arcs from the noise- 
mantra ‘Krautrock’ to the relative quietness of ‘Run’. Approach 1990s albums of 
new material on Table Of Elements with extreme caution. In 1998 an album 
with the wacky title Faust Wakes Nosferatu appeared on Think Progressive discs. 
A five-CD box The Wumme Years (1970-73) came out on ReR in 2001. 


NEU! 


One of the most overrated bands in the history of rock, NEU! impressed English 
and German critical consciousness with their stripped-down metronomic beats, 
no-nonsense album covers and a sense of primalism in the early 1970s. With the 



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release of their third album, NEU! ’75, the group reached their peak as 
machine-like drumming, chilly synth textures, abrasive industrial rock and 
pieces of pure tape-manipulated Ambience combined to blueprint a uniquely 
introspective and German sound. Often credited as being a template for English 
punk rock, NEU!’s music never wholly convinced. What did, though, was the 
talent of guitarist and keyboardist Michael Rother, whose work with Harmonia 
(Brian Eno’s favourite group of the 1970s) and subsequent solo recordings 
revealed a true maestro of electronic and Ambient sound. 

NEU! (meaning ‘NEW!’) emerged from the industrial heartland of Diissel- 
dorf. Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger had, in fact, been closely involved with 
Kraftwerk and the music they had been recording with engineer-producer 
Conny Plank in the Star studio in Hamburg. Leaving Kraftwerk in the summer 
of 1971, Rother and Dinger went back to Hamburg to record an album with 
Conny Plank which was released on the experimental Brain label. Simply titled 
NEU!, it went on to sell 35,000 copies, wrapped in a plain white sleeve on 
which a sharply underlined ‘NEU!’ was scrawled in red. It opened with a 
fiercely stripped-down mechanistic beat and rhythm guitar with the odd treated 
synthesizer surfacing and disappearing back into the mix. The track ‘Hallogallo’ 
defined the NEU! sound. Elsewhere there were the timbres of cymbals distorted 
by tape recorders, the sound of a boating journey augmented by eerie electronic 
tones (‘In Luck’), the disconcertingly noisy entry of a pneumatic drill, some 
grinding slow rock and finally, on ‘Dear Honey’, the whole is deconstructed 
between pained slow-motion vocal and pure tone before returning to the 
Ambience of boats on water. 

Unwisely the group then rush-recorded NEU! 2, an album so appalling in its 
results that Rother left the group. In fact the recording seemed to be dominated 
by Dinger’s monotonous drumming, its entire second side mostly taken up with 
speeded-up and slowed-down versions of a single track, ‘Newsnow’. Disaf- 
fected, Rother joined Cluster in an old farmhouse near Hanover and began 
recording. According to Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster, at one time it was 
NEU! and Cluster all in one room but it didn’t work out and Dinger exited to 
form La Diisseldorf with his brother. Anyway Rother and Cluster formed 
Harmonia and recorded two albums for Brain, of which the second, Deluxe 
(1975), is the best — a recording which seemed to take the autobahn fantasies of 
Kraftwerk and make them more intricate. 

Impressed with this new atmospheric sound which combined electronics and 
rock instrumentation to make self-contained instrumental soundscapes, Brian 
Eno performed with Harmonia in 1974 and joined them in their home studio in 
1976 for an Ambient album, Harmonia 16, left unreleased until 1997. Mean- 
while Rother joined Dinger’s musicians for a new NEU! album, NEU! ’75, 
recorded wisely with Conny Plank. With two extra drummers, Dinger now 
concentrated on guitar, piano and organ, with Rother taking his usual key- 
boards and guitar synthesizer role. The spatial quality of the music, particularly 
on ‘Isi’ and ‘Fare Thee Well’, was quite impressive and the album showed the 



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group had not run out of potential. Again the record appeared in a simple sleeve, 
this time all black with the underlined ‘NEU!’ scrawled in white. 

Subsequently Dinger made records with La Diisseldorf and Rother engaged 
himself with more exotic Ambient tableaux with the drummer from Can, Jaki 
Liebezeit. Flaming Hearts (Sky 1977) was again recorded with Conny Plank and 
was prettier than most NEU! music, lacking Dinger’s obvious austerity. 
Starvalley (1978) and Catmusic (1979) followed a similar vein and Rother 
continued to record into the 1990s. Unfortunately, during that decade dubious 
items put out as NEU! 4 (1996) and NEU! Live (1996) came from Dinger’s dusty 
tape pile and should never have seen the light of day. 

LISTENING 

Though the early NEU! catalogue was officially released on United Artists in 
the 1970s it took until 2001 for EMI to reissue the first three albums on CD. 
Harmonia’s Deluxe (1975) is worth searching for on import CD. The group’s 
1976 album Tracks And Traces (Sony 1997) features Tiineburg Heath’, a location 
near which Faust had their Wumme studio. Michael Rother’s Flaming Hearts 
appeared on Random Records in a laudable 1993 CD edition which included 
Ambient remixes of the title track. Avoid all latter-day product on Captain Trip 
CDs, especially NEU! 4, taken from aborted 1986 NEU! sessions. 


TANGERINE DREAM 

In the rock era they were the ultimate synthesizer group, who produced an 
other-worldly music which drew vast crowds to cathedrals and amphitheatres. 
Like Stockhausen, they believed in a total electronic music and harnessed 
embryonic analogue synthesizers to create vast instrumental sound tapestries. 
During the 1970s many rock musicians used the evolving synthesizer to support 
both acoustic and electric instruments but Tangerine Dream stood almost alone 
in placing all their faith in electronica. As time passed they became the virtuosos 
of the sequenced rhythm, their own research leading directly to sampling 
technology and sequencing software. By the 1990s Tangerine Dream were 
feted as the forerunners of Techno music, their beauteous warm landscapes 
championed by Mixmaster Morris and Future Sound of London to name some. 

Before Tangerine Dream recorded their benchmark synthesizer album 
Phaedra for Virgin in 1973, they had spent six years developing their unique 
sound. Founder Edgar Froese was bom in Lithuania in 1944 and studied classical 
music while young. In his teens he went to West Berlin to study painting and 
sculpture. By his twenties he was playing bluesy guitar and even visited arch- 
Surrealist Salvador Dali in his Catalonian home on several occasions. There 
Froese was stmck by Dali’s ‘melting images’ and felt the painterly technique 



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could be applied to music. At that time Berlin was buzzing with the new musical 
theories of Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis, who all often lectured there. On 
hearing Jimi Hendrix and particularly The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper , Froese formed 
Tangerine Dream in 1967. 

Froese was soon drawn to Berlin’s Zodiak Free Arts Lab, established by Hans- 
Joachim Roedelius and cellist Conrad Schnitzler in 1968. In this experimental 
club strewn with tone generators and amplifiers, early Tangerine Dream shows 
mimicked the Pink Floyd sound of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. By 1969 Froese was 
playing with Schnitzler and a young drummer, Klaus Schulze. The three 
recorded Electronic Meditation (Ear) on a two-track tape machine in a factory. 
Though it owed an obvious debt to Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful Of Secrets , it was 
much more risque. Schulze has called it ‘the primary electronic album’, a 
recording where unusual sound sources like an office calculator jostled with the 
sounds of Farfisa organ and strings, all modulated by reverbs and delays. By 1970 
Schulze had embarked on a solo career and the following year Froese recruited 
Berliner Christoph Franke, one of the ablest musicians in Germany. Franke, 
born in 1952, came from a family of musicians and was building his own studio 
by the age of fifteen. By the time he met Froese in a Berlin studio, the nineteen- 
year-old Franke had studied trumpet, violin, piano and composition and was 
considered the best young drummer in the country. 

Franke impressed Froese with his collection of Stockhausen and Ligeti 
recordings. The result was the meditational electronic feast of Alpha Centauri 
(Ear 1971), a record made on eight- track with Hammond and Farfisa organs, 
flutes and the EMS VCS3 Synthi, a new dimension in the Tangerine Dream 
sound. The group had made their first ‘space-rock’ album. 

Soon after Peter Baumann joined the group. Baumann had studied at the 
American School in Berlin, played organ, liked Surrealist art and had an acutely 
structuralist approach to composition. For many the trio of Froese, Franke and 
Baumann became the classic Tangerine Dream line-up. Working in an eight- 
track studio in Cologne, they produced Zeit (‘Time’) (Ear 1972), a wafting 
double-album Ambient- classical creation using two VCS3 Synthis, four cellos 
and a large Moog Modular synthesizer courtesy of Florian Fricke. Recorded in 
the same studio, Atern (‘Breath’) (Ear 1973) had a dense ritualistic air heightened 
by the first use of an out-of-tune Mellotron. 

At this stage Tangerine Dream were like a group of lab technicians hunched 
over their growing armoury of keyboards and synth modules. Baumann took a 
sabbatical in India and Nepal while Froese and Franke made a ‘sound research’ 
album called Green Desert in Berlin. Unreleased until 1986, this boasted one of 
the first drum sequencers, a PRX rhythm controller from Italy and a MiniMoog 
synth. Its advanced, accessible sound was lapped up by Virgin, who immediately 
signed the group. Franke had for years been experimenting with a Moog 
Modular synth which The Rolling Stones had sold to Hansa studios in Berlin. 
He found it difficult to rig up but was fascinated by the endless rhythms or 
sequences it could generate. The sound reminded him of the repetitive metres 



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of Indian classical music and with it he knew he could build a music of ‘dreams 
and meditations’. With $15,000 of the Virgin advance Franke bought the synth 
from Hansa, his first ‘big Moog’. History in the making. 

The driving bass notes of the Moog were the key feature of Phaedra , 
Tangerine Dream’s debut Virgin album, recorded at the Manor studios over 
six weeks at the end of 1973. Having produced Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells , 
Virgin was committed to instrumental music and not disappointed with Phaedra , 
which went Gold in seven countries and stayed on the UK charts for fifteen 
weeks after its release in early 1974. The mythological washes and aquatic eddies 
of burbling VCS3, foresty double-keyboarded Mellotron Mark 5 and the finale 
of Romantic flute drones were all achieved in painstaking fashion. The aim was 
to achieve a human, emotive music using only electronic means. This aim 
achieved, Franke purchased another big Moog from the English pop group The 
Moody Blues. The Moogs had red light displays and with the blinking lights of 
their VCS3s and PRX console, the three-man Tangerine Dream made an 
impressive sight live. 

At the time Peter Baumann asserted that Tangerine Dream were always 
moving closer to the ‘colour of sound’. For Rubycon (1975), again recorded at 
Virgin’s Oxfordshire studio, the group added a Modified Elka organ and an Arp 
synth to their battery of Mellotron, Moogs and VCS3s. Spliced into two 
seventeen-minute tracks, Rubycon openly paid homage to Stockhausen (open- 
ing of ‘Part 1’) and Ligeti (opening of ‘Part 2’). Other highlights were the 
characteristic Moog sequences, backwards- taped piano sounds and the elegiac 
slow finale. Though a touring sensation, Tangerine Dream had extreme 
problems transporting their equipment, particularly Franke’s double Moog 
set-up, which was damaged on a subsequent Australian tour and gave him a 
nasty electric shock when plugged in. After that Tangerine Dream worked on 
developing a safe transportation system for electronic instruments. The live 
album Ricochet (1975) boasted extensive sixteen-track overdubbing from cathe- 
dral concerts in Europe that year. 

The year 1976 began with Tangerine Dream recording a soundtrack for 
William Friedkin, the director of the classic horror film The Exorcist (1973). In a 
small Berlin studio with an eight-track Ampex recorder, thirteen short com- 
positions, full of throbbing suspense, were created for Sorcerer. Unusually the 
film was shot around the resultant music. In late summer of 1976 the group tried 
out Audio Studios in Berlin for their next studio album, Stratosfear. A favourite 
among fans, the record mixed electronic instruments with acoustic sources like 
harpsichord, guitars and harmonica. Though an orchestral studio, Audio proved 
a jinxed location, the recording process costing a small fortune owing to faulty 
multi-tracks, exploding Dolby units and a mixing desk which spontaneously 
combusted. Baumann also had many problems with a new Projeckt Elecktronik 
computer sequencer which had taken a year to build in Berlin. Despite the 
problems, Stratosfear (1976) was Tangerine Dream’s most accessible album up to 
then. 



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American tours followed in 1977, the group adding new equipment such as 
an Oberheim eight-voiced polyphonic synthesizer and first digital synth from 
Wolfgang Palm, the PPG Wave, which Tangerine Dream were investing in. 
With their synth racks on wheeled metal boxes and help from Projeckt 
Elecktronik, their sold-out America jaunts were successful enough to record 
on four-track. The resultant Encore (1977) cut stylistically across ten years of 
Dream music, from Froese’s Gibson guitar solos to pure Ambient sound- 
paintings. The last date of the tour in Colorado that autumn saw the surprise exit 
of Peter Baumann, who wished to pursue a solo career in electronic music. After 
a period of instability which included the recording at Hansa of the futuristic 
Force Majeure (1979), containing the Techno excursion ‘Thru Metamorphic 
Rocks’, Tangerine Dream stabilized once again with new member Johannes 
Schmoelling. 

A young sound engineer with an interest in piano and organ music, 
Schmoelling was also keen to develop electronic collages. When he met Froese 
he was mixing sounds for Philip Glass’s opera collaborator Robert Wilson at a 
Berlin theatre. Schmoelling was an excellent technician and pianist and injected 
‘more structured elements and composed melodies’ into the music. Franke 
taught him how to use the MiniMoog and their first studio album, Tangram 
(1980), revealed an extensive use of new polyphonic synthesizers, including the 
Roland Jupiter 8, which Chris Franke helped design. Moreover Franke’s 
cinema space in Berlin had become a $1. 5-million complex full of twenty- 
four-track recording equipment. Approached by talented director Michael 
Mann to score the suspenseful heist thriller Thief (1981), the group produced 
a soundtrack that made them famous in America, particularly for the organic 
quality of the electronic music on display. The album also boasted one of the 
early uses of Bell Laboratories’ GDS computer synthesizer. 

The Fairlight Computer Music Instrument, drum loops, long tape loops and 
extensive use of voice synthesizer, or vocoder, characterized Tangerine Dream’s 
1981 album Exit , a cutting-edge electronic release whose lyrical melodicism was 
years ahead of the work of any of their rivals. The evolution of digital sampling 
and sequencing technology from PPG Wave and the Japanese Roland company 
allowed greater progress in the Tangerine Dream sound. Another Michael 
Mann film, Risky Business , benefited from the Roland MC-8 sequencer, which 
could store thousands of musical notes. Programmable sequencers also facilitated 
a more Minimalist sound in the vein of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and 
pulsations were heard to their fullest effect on the soundtrack to Mann’s Gothic 
sci-fi thriller The Keep (1983). Sampled drum sounds, electronic sitar and tabla 
sounds were just some of the lush textures which made up the eloquent 
Hyperborea , also released in 1983. 

As the years progressed Tangerine Dream consolidated their lead as re- 
searchers and innovators in electronic music. Froese built up an extensive sound 
library while Franke would leave to work with Steinberg on the CUBASE 
Audio computer sequencing software, one of the most popular computer-music 



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tools ever invented. Johannes Schmoelling had left in 1984 and developed his 
own studio in Berlin. His replacement was a young Austrian classical musician, 
Paul Haslinger, whose computer-software expertise helped shape the three- 
month creative process of Underwater Sunlight (Jive 1986), an album which 
included the formidable Ambient masterpiece ‘Song Of The Whale’. The 
pressure of touring and soundtrack work proved too much for Chris Franke, 
who left in 1988 to work in Los Angeles with Steinberg. His 1991 Virgin 
recording Pacific Coast Highway revealed his sonorous instrumental abilities 
outside the group. The 1990s saw Edgar Froese work with his son Jerome, 
a computer and synthesizer enthusiast and, for five years, with former Austrian 
model, classical keyboardist and saxophonist Linda Spa. Goblin’s Club (Castle 
1996), using Korg and Roland keyboards plus an exotic list of sampled acoustic 
sources, was a convincing return to form. Two latter-day film soundtracks, Oasis 
(1997) and Great Wall Of China (2000), both released on TDI and both credited 
to Edgar and Jerome Froese, show Tangerine Dream to be the masters of 
flawless chugging electro- Ambience. By now the group had studios in Vienna 
and Berlin and one of the most formidable equipment stores in the world, so it 
was no idle boast when Froese told me in 1994: ‘Tangerine Dream’s music is a 
diary of the history of musical instruments in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.’ 

LISTENING 

In 1994 appeared Tangents, a five-disc reappraisal of the Virgin years, 1973-83, 
which was extensively remixed and remastered by Edgar Froese himself. The 
period 1994—5 saw the release of the individual remastered Virgin discs, of 
which Phaedra (1974), Ruby con (1975) and Stratosfear (1976) come highly 
recommended. In 1996 another five-disc box (again remixed by Froese) 
covering Tangerine Dream history before and after their Virgin decade was 
released by Castle Communications. Individual remastered albums also ap- 
peared, including the fascinating Alpha Centauri (1971) and Zeit (1972) and the 
impressive Poland (1984) and Underwater Sunlight (1986). 

Peter Baumann’s contribution to electronic music should not be under- 
estimated. In 1976 he contacted E-Mu systems in America to develop a 
combined computer and analogue synthesizer. His first two solo albums for 
Virgin, Romance ’76 (1976) and Trans -Harmonic Nights (1978), were full of edgy 
sequenced lines which pre-dated UK electro-bop and House music by years. 
During the 1980s he set up the New Age label Private Music in the US, 
eventually signing Tangerine Dream in 1988. Unfortunately, this gifted mu- 
sician left the music business in the 1990s, his solo gifts duly celebrated on the 
Virgin compilation Phase By Phase (1996). 

Surprisingly, Edgar Froese also had a solo contract with Virgin during their 
successful Virgin period. The amorphous, bubbling quality of Aqua (1974) was 
enhanced by the three-dimensional ‘Artificial Head’ recording system devel- 
oped in Germany. Epsilon In Malaysian Pale (1975), recorded after a trip to 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


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Southeast Asia, was a veritable homage to the Mellotron. The well-structured 
Stuntman (1979), recorded at Hansa studios in Berlin, saw Froese use the Roland 
Guitar synth and various sound waveforms produced by new PPG equipment. 
His last Virgin solo, Pinnacles (1983), was an even more streamlined use of digital 
sampling and Korg and Roland polyphonies, influenced in mood by a trip to the 
Australian outback. In 1995 Virgin released a collection of remastered and 
remixed material from Froese’s solo tape banks titled Beyond The Storm. 


POPOL VUH 

No one ever forgets the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s spellbinding movie 
Aguirre , Wrath Of God (1972). An angelic choir is heard as we travel through the 
clouds of the High Andes. Slowly the mist clears to reveal a giant mountainside 
from which tiny figures descend. There is the sound of a strange keyboard 
instrument, in this case a Mellotron, and the sight of heavily armoured 
conquistadors blindly thrashing their way through jungle highlands in search 
of El Dorado. The music is shrouded in an air of mystery, its makers Popol Vuh 
probably the most mysterious group to emerge from German rock of the 1970s. 
Over dozens of albums Popol Vuh drew on Oriental and Indian philosophies to 
create mantras in sound, using both acoustic and electronic instruments. Their 
almost mystical sound became a key ingredient in the films of German director 
Herzog. The music eventually transcended all fashion so that by the 1990s it was 
able to absorb Trance and Techno styles without losing its unique identity. 

Popol Vuh has always been driven by musician and composer Florian Fricke, 
born near the German-Swiss border in 1944. He studied classical piano in 
Freiburg and composition at Munich Conservatory. While still a teenager he 
transferred to film school, where he met Herzog and bonded a fruitful 
friendship. He even played jazz-rock with the future founder of ECM, Manfred 
Eicher. During the late 1960s he followed the hippie trail to Nepal, taking in 
Africa and India before studying Tibetan choral music in the Himalayas. He 
returned to Munich and in 1969 bought one of the first big Moog synthesizers 
in Germany. With this he founded Popol Vuh, a group whose name derived 
from the sacred book of the Mayas. Their debut album, Ajfenstunde (‘time of the 
monkeys’), was released on Liberty in 1971 to great acclaim. Recording natural 
elemental sounds, Popol Vuh combined these with electronic Moog drones to 
great effect. At the time the synthesizer’s inventor, Robert Moog, commented: 
‘This is beautiful music.’ 

Another meditation on the sixty-one-keyed Moog followed, its spooky 
sound driven by conga drums and climaxing in a celestial coda for percussion, 
electric piano and splashing water. Titled In Pharaoh’s Garden, it was released by 
Pilz in early 1972, the year that Fricke contributed Moog synth solos to 
Tangerine Dream’s fourth album, Zeit, and wrote the music for Aguirre, Wrath 



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Of God , starring Klaus Kinski. Consisting of theme and exposition, along 
classical lines, this work had such an other-worldly quality that it has featured on 
Popol Vuh compilations ever since. 

In 1973 Fricke turned his back on electronics and formed a new Popol Vuh 
featuring piano, harpsichord, oboe, tambura and violin. Djong Yun, from Korea, 
sang and the resultant album, Hosianna Mantra, was one long devotional hymn. 
Fricke explored a more rock-oriented music over the next few years with the 
addition of Daniel Fichelscher (of German rock band Amon Diiiil II) on electric 
Fender and percussion. This phase came to a climax on the 1975 album The Holy 
Song Of Solomon, which contained some of the creamiest rock ever recorded. 

Always changing, Fricke recorded the solo album Yoga in 1976, just two tracks of 
uplifting sitar-led music recorded with Indian musicians at his studio in Munich. 
Again in 1977 Fricke arrived at a unique music for Herzog’s film Heart Of Glass, a 
dreamlike series of instrumentals which complemented Herzog’s controversial use 
of hypnosis on the cast. More important was his music for the Herzog version of 
Nosferatu (1978), which again starred Kinski and contained Fricke’s finest creations 
since Aguirre. Released on Brain as Brothers Of Darkness — Sons Of Light in the same 
year, it was a powerhouse of Ambient guitar, piano and sitar mantra. The title track 
alone lasted seventeen minutes. The becalming ‘Oh Hear, Thou Who Darest’ used 
the still Ambience of decaying piano notes and in retrospect was a precursor to 
Eno’s sound-alike Thursday Afiernoon of 1985. More wanderings in the Himalayas, 
studies in Indian tantra and so on led Fricke to consolidate various line-ups of Popol 
Vuh for the recording Night Of The Spirit - Tantric Songs (1979), which featured 
Amazonian chants, acoustic guitar passages, chanted mantras, percussion instru- 
mentals and Ambient piano pieces. At this point Fricke began holding workshops in 
creative singing and breathing therapy. Eventually he would become an authority, 
lecturing on the subject internationally. 

In 1982 Herzog requested more Popol Vuh music, this time for his ambitious 
Fitzcarraldo, again starring Kinski, here in the role of a crazed Irishman who 
dreams of building an opera house in the Amazon jungle. During filming 
Herzog attempted to defy nature by dragging a paddle-steamer across a 
mountain. Dotted with the early 78rpm recordings of classic operatic perfor- 
mances, the soundtrack was best remembered for Popol Vuh’s raw, ritualistic 
percussion and unnervingly primal chanting. A more commercial recording, 
Agape-Agape, appeared on the Norwegian Uniton label in 1983 and seemed to 
sum up all of Popol Vuh’s stylistic changes to date. It concluded with the still 
Ambience of the piano track ‘Why Do I Still Sleep’. Even better was 1987’s 
Spirit Of Peace, an album which explored spatial piano notes and lengthy, trance- 
inducing guitar mantras. Part of it was then used on Herzog’s 1987 film Cobra 
Verde, the soundtrack of which also featured Fricke coaxing beautiful textures 
from his Synclavier keyboard. 

Having influenced the 80s group The Cocteau Twins, Popol Vuh’s music 
became during the late 1990s a reference point for electronic musicians 
interested in ‘isolationist’ tendencies. Musicians like Dortmund’s Thomas Koner 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


293 


and Norway’s Biosphere could relate the static and the spiritually uplifting in 
Fricke’s music to their own explorations of slowly unfolding time and motion. 
Often touching on the careers of such legendary German groups as Tangerine 
Dream and Amon Diiiil II (whose Renate Knaup joined as vocalist in the late 
1970s), Popol Vuh have always existed in their own space, making a music that 
has reference points and influences way beyond the rock spectrum. 

LISTENING 

During the early 1990s Spalax Music in Paris began reissuing the extensive 
Popol Vuh catalogue on CD. Up to then it was well-nigh impossible to hear 
some of the finest Ambient- electronic music ever recorded as it was spread over 
a dozen European labels. Affenstunde (1991) and In Pharaoh’s Garden (1994) are 
certainly worth hearing because of the innovative use of Moog, while The Holy 
Song Of Solomon (1992) contains some fine rock instrumentals. The bulk of the 
Herzog material is brilliant, particularly the soundtracks to Aguirre , Wrath Of 
God (1996) and Nosferatu (1993) (which came in two versions). Be warned: the 
Fitzcarraldo soundtrack of 1996 is littered with classic opera performances on 78 
by Enrico Caruso. 

For a general Herzog-Fricke disc choose Best Of Popol Vuh— Werner Herzog 
(Milan 1993). In 1994 Fricke teamed up with Popol Vuh founder member 
Frank Fiedler to record a more Techno-influenced album, City Raga (Milan), 
sampling the voice of a young singer travelling in the Yucatan. The follow-up, 
Shepherd’s Symphony (Mystic 1997), refined these Trance-Dance elements even 
further. Mystic released a commendable sampler, Not High In Heaven , in 1998, 
featuring new mixes and out-takes from the period 1970—85. Florian Fricke 
died peacefully in his sleep in December 2001 just before the release of the last 
Popol Vuh album Future Sound Experience (Mystic 2002). 


ROEDELIUS, CLUSTER, HARMONIA 


Hans-Joachim Roedelius is a key ingredient in the genesis of German electro- 
nica from the late 1960s until the end of the twentieth century. He forms a vital 
link between the pioneering electronic work of Tangerine Dream, Klaus 
Schulze and Ash Ra Tempel; the music of his own group Cluster and that 
of Brian Eno; and his influence goes right through the fashionable soothing 
Ambience of the 1980s and on into the chilly Techno soundscapes of the 
following decade. Initially a pioneer of German electronic experimentation, he 
slowly shifted to acoustic piano and electric keyboards, his style of repeating 
melodic motifs and cascading arpeggios producing some of the most distinctive 
and beautiful Ambient music ever recorded. It is no exaggeration to proclaim 
him the finest keyboardist to emerge from German rock. 



294 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


Roedelius was bom in Berlin in 1934 to a church-going mother and a dentist. 
His boyhood, like Stockhausen’s, was marred by the horror of war and after a 
failed attempt to escape the Nazi regime he was imprisoned in East Germany for 
desertion. He was later released to a compulsory physiotherapy course and 
remained in the East until 1961, when threats to his family subsided. He then 
crossed to West Berlin and became a masseur. Through all this he maintained an 
interest in the piano and an appreciation of the Impressionistic music of Satie, 
Ravel and Debussy. At night he played with theatrical, jazz and mixed-media 
groups. He travelled to Paris and, colourfully, opened a restaurant in Corsica. 

Sympathetic to student unrest, he returned to Berlin in 1968 and started the 
Zodiak Free Arts Lab with a friend, Conrad Schnitzler (a founder member of 
Tangerine Dream). It became a locus of experimentation to which the Dream, 
Klaus Schulze and Ash Ra Temp el all owing the beginning of their careers. 
Roedelius himself used the space as a forum for experiments such as ‘electro- 
nically treated sounds, handmade flutes, alarm clock and voice used in con- 
junction with amplification and tape delays’. The Zodiak closed in May 1969 
and Roedelius and friends went off to North Africa on a musical quest. Within a 
short time he was back in Berlin and formed Kluster with Schnitzler and another 
musician, Dieter Moebius. They played long pieces of electro-acoustic music. 
‘Just keyboards, musical cycles, tone generators, voltage things used in con- 
junction with odd sources like metal plates linked to contact mikes. Moebius 
played an electronically treated battery with microphones wired through 
amplifiers and echo machine!’ Roedelius also confessed to playing organ and 
cello. The others also played the more conventional violin, cello and guitar. 

Roedelius always stated that he had no formal training and worked his way 
towards his consummate style through a combination of emotion, instinct and 
concentration. Kluster played the hippie music circuit in Germany, even 
supporting Jimi Hendrix at one open-air festival. After two years Schnitzler 
left and Kluster became the legendary duo Cluster of Moebius and Roedelius. 
Even more legendary was Conny Plank, a Cologne engineer who offered to 
produce Cluster’s albums in Hamburg and later in his own studio in Cologne. 
He even played synthesizers and was virtually a third member of Cluster. Early 
recordings like Cluster 2 (Brain 1972) sounded like a host of machines left 
running overnight! Eventually Cluster set up their own studio in a stone room 
in Forst in north-west Germany. 

In 1973 Cluster were joined by Michael Rother of the Diisseldorf group 
NEU! and made Music From Harmonia (Brain 1974), an album of oscillating 
rhythms and ‘cosmic music’. Harmonia was a form of supergroup that very 
quickly attracted the attention of Brian Eno, who thought the album one of the 
greatest ever. In 1974 he performed on stage with Harmonia in Hamburg and in 
1976 went to Forst to record an album of superior electronic Ambience before 
continuing his German odyssey with David Bowie in Berlin. Of course that 
resulted in Low and ‘Heroes’, two 1977 albums which in essence brought the 
work of Cluster and other German experimentalists to a mass audience. 



AMBIENCE IN THE ROCK ERA 


295 


Harmonia released one last album, Deluxe (1975), a critically acclaimed set, 
before Cluster became a duo again. In 1976 they released the burblingly 
accessible Sotviesoso (‘Anyway’) on Sky. For many the peak of this fruitful 
period came when Eno again collaborated with Cluster and Conny Plank on 
the Sky albums Cluster And Eno (1977) and After The Heat (1978), two fine 
examples of digestible electro nica which brought Roedelius and Moebius to a 
world audience. 

Contemplating a solo career, Roedelius moved to Vienna in 1978 and released 
his first solo album, Through The Desert , which was two years in the making with 
Conny Plank. His next album, Jar din Au Fou (1979), produced by ex-Tangerine 
Dream synthesist Peter Baumann, marked Roedelius’s transition from electronics 
to more serene acoustic tableaux. In 1980, with a grant from the Alban Berg 
Endowment fund, he purchased a Bosendorfer grand piano. His method was to 
overdub himself on tape, adding subtle saxophone or guitar tracks. For the most 
part the waterfall piano style, cushioned by an instinctive use of acoustic space and 
hypnotic tempos, would produce brilliant results time and time again. The albums 
Gift Of The Moment (1984), Like The Whispering Of The Wind (1986) and Momenti 
Felici (1987) are masterpieces of ‘texture and mood’. 

Having worked alone for many years, Roedelius ended the 1980s by teaming 
up with other musicians and writing Fortress Of Love (1989) for Virgin, an album 
full of different moods and poetic recitations. The 1990s saw his Blumau studio 
in Austria attract lots of musicians. Now working with Korg synthesizer and 
sampling keyboard as well as a lot of reverberation and delay, Roedelius began 
composing for the German theatre. In 1993 he started to work with a guitar, sax 
and keyboard trio which became known as Aquarello and in 1995 reunited with 
Moebius for a live Cluster album, One Hour. By the end of the 1990s Roedelius 
was a hero to many, his quietly insistent music hailed by DJs such as the UK’s 
Mixmaster Morris and Japan’s Ken Ishii and endorsed by rock stars such as David 
Bowie. 

LISTENING 

Roedelius is an archetype of Ambient and electronic music, so almost all of his 
discography is worth hearing. So sublime and often luminous is his work that, 
once heard, many claim that it is essential to hear more. Most records have been 
reissued on CD. Early Cluster albums are often little more than treated 
electronic tones but Sowiesoso (Sky 1976) is fantastic upbeat stuff. The two 
Eno collaborations, Cluster And Eno (Sky 1977) and After The Heat (Sky 1978), 
are very stylish exercises in electronic exploration. Can’s Holger Czukay appears 
on the first. Roedelius’s work with Harmonia appeared on bootleg disc in the 
1990s but in 1997 Sony S3 reissued ‘the legendary lost Eno album’ Harmonia 16 , 
whose sound is often that of single vibrations being dropped into liquid space. 

Those interested in acoustic and chamber music need look no further than 
the pastoral bliss of Gift Of The Moment (EG 1984), the Ambient piano 



296 


THE AMBIENT CENTURY 


minimalism of Like The Whispering Of The Wind (Cicada 1986) or the dancing 
keyboard patters of Momenti Felici (Virgin Venture 1987). Brian Eno sponsored 
some of the tonal pieces on the Japanese collection, Pink, Blue And Amber 
(Prudence 1996). For a fresh overview of everything Roedelius has to offer, try 
Aquarello (All Saints 1998). 


MANUEL GOTTSCHING AND ASH RA TEMPEL 

One of the most mellifluously gifted guitarists to come out of the German rock 
scene of the early 1970s was Manuel Gottsching. His fusion of guitar im- 
provisation with electronic treatments made his first group, Ash Ra Tempel, 
one of the most exciting German bands of their era. By the mid-1970s he was a 
solo inventor, allying his Fender and Gibson guitar streams with effects to the 
modern recording studio. He became adept at combining the instrument with 
soft synthesizer washes and hypnotic grooves. His output reached a crucial peak 
on the 1984 release ‘E2- E4\ so successful a marriage that it became a bench- 
mark Ambient House and Trance recording for the 1990s. 

Ash Ra Tempel were formed in 1970 by Gottsching and Klaus Schulze in 
Berlin. Their first album, Ash Ra Tempel (Ear) was recorded by Conny Plank at 
the Star Studio in Hamburg in 1971 and released that year. It was basically 
electronically treated rock, one track per side of LP. The second track, ‘Dream 
Machine’, was full of cavernous atmospheric sounds. The group’s second 1971 
album, Oscillations (Ear), added more instrumentation and players but lost 
Schulze to a solo career. It played around with rock but culminated in the 
region of cosmic music, ‘Search’/‘Love’, featuring electronically treated vibra- 
phone and an electronic Ambient haze. 

A journey to Berne in Switzerland saw them jam with the American acid 
guru Timoth